The Midwest

January 5th. The new year, 2021. Portland, Oregon, and we are now officially off the road. It’s quiet here, softly raining. I am thinking about our possessions, with are north in Seattle, with friends. I am thinking about our friends, how the new year is for them. Then I am thinking about winter, which comprises our duration in Portland, and spring, when we have to figure out what’s next, when we have to further our permanence, in some place, with some work, in some new life. It feels like we are just starting what everyone else endured for most of last year, that we are just starting the pandemic, the fixity, a handful of rooms in which to live, a handful of pages and screens to live by. And now I am trying to think about last year, where this writing has left off, the end of July and we are about to leave the West. The sun was high and bright. We moved far and fast. I am thinking about it now, here, in January, in Portland, Oregon. It is a study in contrasts. Perhaps that’s what this thinking has always been.

And then we left the West. Headed to Alaska, but by way of Chicago, preparing to hold our breath for a pandemic flight from O’Hare to Anchorage. We had been in the West roughly since leaving Austin, TX the day after the city announced the cancellation of SXSW as a precaution against the growing concern of the coronavirus. For months we had drawn a shoestring loop around the American deserts and up the spine of the Rocky Mountain Continental Divide, and the continuity of the plan and our motion prevailing through uncertainties and closures and the great epidemiological questions we tried to answer with an improvised micromanagement of our behaviors and the flinging of ourselves into remoteness all felt like it was coming to a certain intermediate end. The year would no longer be something that we could trace with our finger. We drove over South Pass, a sea of tawny grass and sage brush barely elevated, like an overturned bowl, above the center of the country, the lowest of the Rocky Mountain passes, the primary route of Manifest Destiny, of homesteaders and gold diggers and Mormons, and of course, since long before then, the First Nations of the Crow, Shoshone, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, among others. The sun was in full midday, midsummer luminosity, materially photonic, washing out everything. We ate lunch at a picnic area on the pass, then drove on.

We were ten days from my wife’s 40th birthday. We had plans to celebrate with family and friends in Chicago and the suburbs, though COVID continued to make planning awkward and unreliable―you couldn’t, of course, just throw a party. We relied on our own set of proscriptions and procedures: no more than ten people at a time; do everything outside. And we were fortunate to be part of a long-distance bubble of friends, having made a pact back in June when, too, as we leeched the public wifi of Town Park in Telluride, we found a lakehouse in eastern Michigan where the seven of us could celebrate a collective 40th birthday for my wife and our friends L. and J.. Hearing that my wife’s sister and her family (the C. family) were at their cabin in central Wisconsin, we now had a route: east through South Dakota and Minnesota and into central Wisconsin, stay a night with the C’s, then north/northeast hugging the coast of Lake Michigan through Green Bay and into the Hiawatha National Forest to camp for a few nights (and touch Lake Superior), then south over the Straits of Mackinac into the UP of Michigan, continuing south to our lakehouse in Howell (between Lansing and Ann Arbor), several days there, then west to swim in the pool at my parent’s house, have a barbecue at my wife’s parent’s house, hope to see some of my wife’s childhood friends (one owns a brewery and had just opened a second, massive location for it), and then my wife’s actual birthday in Chicago with the same bubble of lakehouse friends. It was a good plan, and we felt fortunate that we had time to make it to people individually, and that it was summer and we could be outside.

Some evenings the mist thickens in tissuey strands clinging to the firs on Mt. Tabor, visible from our kitchen window, and when the sun sets those strands glow iron hot. Other evenings we are visited by crows, hundreds roosting in the trees around us, lining themselves on the powerlines like a garrison.

But we weren’t quite through the West yet. Anyone who has driven between Chicago and Wyoming knows that you stop in the Badlands. I have been there at least a half dozen times―it’s a natural midway point with a lot of camping options, and you can get coffee and a bumper sticker at Wall Drug, if you so wish, as you mosey along the next morning. But I’d never actually done much hiking there. We knew that the park offered walk-up permits for off-trail backpacks to spend the night amid the maze of erosional structures―this is exactly like the Petrified Forest, which we loved backpacking in March, so even though it was touching 100 degrees when we pulled into the Ben Reifel Visitor Center on the east side of the park, we were pretty set on the plan that we would be hiking in.

The Badlands

Hiking in

The park was very busy, and we tried our best to stay out of the crowds. At the visitor center they were gating two lines, one to talk to rangers, another for the bookstore (both of which were under EZ-Up Tents in front of the closed, actual visitor center)—my wife and I split up: she got the permit and some information, and I bought a sticker (featuring silhouettes of prairie dogs against the sunset). We filled our waters, then set out for a long, leisurely drive of the park’s scenic byway, SD-240, wending around and atop numerous vistas of the park’s famous buttes, which corral bucolic prairie meadows that were still brilliant green despite the oppressive July sun. We were mostly trying to get to some cooler temperatures closer to sunset, but we enjoyed delaying ourselves, stopping at nearly every overlook, wandering out into Prairie Dog Town (where we also spotted a bison and a distant pronghorn in a hallucination of the African Savannah in heat shimmering air), and eventually making our way to the Sage Creek Campground, where I’ve always camped before, an open-prairie loop set in a little bowl on the park’s far northwestern edge. We cruised the campground, windowshopping, as it were (it was crowded and looked, honestly, miserable), then headed back east to the Conata Picnic Area, where we would hike in. We waited out the sun a little more, making burritos at a picnic shelter with our big frontcountry stove, and then packing especially light packs of hot-weather sleeping essentials, some whisky, a few liters of water, bag of snacks, stove and pot and a little baggy of instant coffee. As we cleaned up the picnic area the light started to soften and we could feel maybe 5 degrees of temperature relief, so we decided to hit the trail, heading toward a well-known copse of junipers called Deer Haven, about 2.5 miles in, though we knew we probably wouldn’t get that far. Sure enough, about a mile in, we cut off route and into the buttes where we found a lovely private meadow anchored by a lone juniper. We pitched our tent and explored the area, watching the sunset pool into our little slice of that wilderness, staining the buttes primrose and crimson and gold. When the visibility got difficult, we sat by our tent and drank whisky, talking with satisfaction about the Winds and the West and the badlands and the wild we could feel pounding within us and what it would be like to bring it back home to the Midwest, where everyone had been so closed up for the pandemic. Our eyes adjusted to the darkness, and then we could see, arcing in hairpin turns all above our heads, bats.

~

We’ve seen a cousin here in Portland, and her family. We got takeout and sat on their porch with them, under electric blankets and a mounted space heater. She runs a program for homeless youth, has for decades―we talked about COVID, how her organization is at a minimum of services, but how surprisingly low the infection rates are in the homeless camps. We talked about how the camps have expanded in the city, how people are out of work, how the police have stopped doing sweeps. We talked about the forest fires, how dangerously close they got, how bad the smoke was, how it was like a double quarantine. Then we talked about winter, and snow.

Our camp early the next morning

We were hiking out by 7am the next morning, trying to get ahead of the heat, and indeed by the time we picked up I-90 and continued the long stretch east the sun was fully installed, pressing the vast plains of South Dakota even more strainingly open, like a giant jaw into which we drove. I’ve debated this, but I think I’m of the mind that the real edge of the American West is where the prairie stops, turning into hardwood forest or, more likely, cleared hardwood forest. It’s a more subtle demarcation than, say, the Rocky Mountains (which, if you were to drive I-70 in the opposite direction, west into Denver, can be seen for hours, mistaken for clouds at first, hanging on the horizon). Going eastbound, if you don’t notice the transition from prairie to hardwoods by vegetation, you might notice a gentle buckling of the land into ever-so-slightly smaller hills and depressions, what effectively narrows the horizon around you. It’s a degree of change so minute one is more apt to feel it than visibly notice it, to awaken suddenly within the understanding that one is now in a different part of the country. For this portion, on I-90 traveling into the upper Midwest, it happens somewhere in western Minnesota. We drove on, echoing a drive we did more than 15 years ago when we moved from Denver to Minneapolis and during which we camped a night in the Badlands and then another at Myre-Big Island State Park in Minnesota. I remember a pastel-toned sunset that second night serving as the official notification that we were back in the Midwest (perhaps sky colors are another demarcation). This time, however, we drove right past Myre-Big Island, crossing the Mississippi River in the beautiful bluff-lands of La Crosse, MN, and into the Driftless region of southwestern Wisconsin, which, for the nine years we lived in Chicago, gave us at least a modicum of vertical terrain and big woods in which we could lose ourselves. But this time we yet drove on, eventually leaving the interstate for a series of state and county highways. Left turns, right turns, through many small towns, and as the sun set and we approached the C. family’s cabin we were surprised to see, stepping tall in the adjacent fields, sandhill cranes.

When we arrived I was certain of two things: we looked crazy―deeply tanned and sun- and windburned, dirt in the creases of our skin, our hair pulled away into greasy confinements, our clothes dusty and salt-stained―and, though we had had showers not three days before, we smelled rank, of a robust microbial activity, that stiff-and-sweet body odor that is a combination of must, dirt, and fermentation, perfuming the air with the great wicking power of the polyester fibers of our technical clothes, not an altogether unpleasant smell, “enhanced” one might even call it, but nonetheless a smell that one starts to monitor closely, for which one starts to make contingency plans. But it was no bother, the C. family are a tough bunch, outdoorspeople themselves, constant athletes accustomed to sweat and its development. They offered us beers. We took a tour of the cabin. And we passed a long evening sitting in the living room on the couch and floor, the kids eating ice cream while we talked about Wyoming and the Grand Canyon and COVID (later, half the family would get it (everyone is OK) when it gripped Wisconsin in the fury of the fall elections), and then fishing and target archery and sandhill cranes and the neighborliness of rural Wisconsinites in the winter when the country roads get choked with snow and ice.

And we made a pact with the eldest niece to hike the John Muir Trail when she graduated high school in two years. When my wife and I moved to Seattle and began really involving ourselves in the wilderness of the region, we knew we wanted to share some of those experiences with the C. family, given their rough-and-tumble proclivities (they are all hockey players, for instance). Sure enough my wife’s sister made it out with the two teenage girls, and we had one of the best trips of our years there, an epic, if piecemeal, excursion to the Olympic Peninsula, driving all the way to Shi Shi Beach on its northwestern coast for a dark night of beach backpacking where would explore the sea stacks by flashlight during a midnight lowtide (our lights later blinking out one-by-one on the hike back to camp, which we eventually had to find in the dark), followed the next day by a drive all the way back east to backpack into the tremendous old growth forest of Royal Creek, which we would then almost literally run out of the subsequent morning so I could make a poetry reading at Elliot Bay in Seattle. The girls shredded the hiking, barely huffing at the elevation (this was their first time in mountains), and they swam, too, in the frigid surf of the North Pacific, with glee. When we learned this night at their cabin that the eldest had been reading a book on the JMT, well, our hands were tied―so the pact was made. Finish our beer, and we hit the sack.

It’s January 7th and I’m standing at a makeshift desk in our kitchen. Yesterday, while a joint session of Congress was confirming the electoral votes to confirm Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election, a mob of Trump supporters stormed and breached the Capitol, breaking through windows and occupying the chambers and offices. Tear gas surrounded the Capitol steps. A woman was shot and killed. A Confederate flag was flown in the Senate. Anyone reading this will have seen the images.

It was a pretty dreamy welcoming to the Midwest, but the next few days we would run into some hard realities of the region. Driving north, past Green Bay and toward the Hiawatha National Forest and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan put us squarely within one of the most contested political battlegrounds of the country. We were shaken awake; we had almost forgotten. The drive along the western shore of Lake Michigan was a fusillade of Trump signs, repeating themselves like a heartbeat, or like train cars, or like confetti. We could almost feel their increasing density in the contraction of our irises. There was a maniacal, textual muttering of his slogans: No More Bullshit, Drain the Swamp, Make America Great Again. Many signs were your standard campaign lawn affairs, but so many were much more, oversize flags whipping in the lakeshore wind, strung between fence posts, draped in front of garage doors, abandoned RVs. I thought: these must be pretty expensive. Trump, Trump, Trump. It was a sunny day, I would say beautiful, but my hesitation precluded any experience of beauty. It was nauseous; the bright green of deep-summer vegetation felt effusive, oleaginous. I just wanted to get through it.

The things is, I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, and I would say we were naive except that we had, in fact, already braced ourselves for an onslaught of Trump propaganda: for the South, for the rural West. We saw so, so little of it in those places, not in rural Alabama or Georgia or Mississippi, not in the Morman lands of southern Utah or the cowboy country of Wyoming. We knew, of course, that many Trump supporters live in these states, but the visible mark of his presence was so surprisingly low in them that we settled into a more complacent conclusion, that folks in these parts were more concerned with their immediate lives and property, paying bills, fixing this or that, weekend trips with the ATV or boat or horses. This was our view from the road. When we had set out into some of these parts of the country, as I’ve written earlier, we had something of an implied project to ferret out where conservative America is. Driving in the upper Midwest and, later, through states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, I realized the question was wrong: it isn’t where conservative America is―it’s where it is created. I can’t imagine what propaganda gauntlets of this magnitude must do to the psyche of the people living in these states. And then I thought about Fox News, all cable news. And then I remembered that the internet exists.

Portland endured a lot last year. COVID, massive wildfires, and a brutal federal response to social justice protests. There have been no protests or National Guard this January, but the remnants are here, the windows of businesses boarded up, crowd control fencing, and signs, lots and lots of Black Lives Matter signs, everywhere, mass produced or hand-sharpied, on bumpers and in windows, in sometimes simple and sometimes elaborate street art, often just pertly driven into rain-wet yards.

And it was still COVID. We got to the Hiawatha National Forest to find full campgrounds. We expected things to be difficult at campgrounds on the picturesque shores of Lake Superior, so we didn’t linger in their loops, opting instead to drive south into the heart of the forest, trying for established and dispersed camps. It was a Wednesday, and we were feeling optimistic, but campground after campground was full. We spent a few hours driving around the backroads, trying to remember all of our turns, but the brush was so thick that hardly anything suitable presented itself to us, and when it did, it was occupied. We eventually found an open spot, just as the sun was setting and the mosquitoes were coming out, at a campground on a small interior lake. The next day, we drove on and were able to upgrade a little bit, getting Lake Michigan access at the aptly named Lake Michigan Campground, near Brevort Lake, though we had to pay an additional night to occupy it ahead of the 4pm check-in (“You can wait it out,” the campground host told me, “but it’s Thursday and someone will probably take it.”). Oh well, it was a nice afternoon sitting high up on some surprisingly steep dunes, overlooking the lake and texting with our friends, whom we would see the next day.

There are maybe 2 or 3 places we’ve visited this year that, when talking about our travels, we have to admit we didn’t like. The UP was one of them. I hate to say it. Having lived in Chicago for so long, I know how much people love it, and indeed, it has a lot to offer, surrounded by three of the Great Lakes, offering huge tracts of forest, quaint little towns. But it was difficult, at this specific moment in the year, to feel good about it. Definitely part of it was our orientation―we had just spent the better part of the year in extremely wide-open spaces, where room for oneself was easy to find, where the remoteness and danger enlivened one’s perspective. In the West, talking with other folks, other travelers, campground hosts, hikers, and you shared in a communal sense of exploration and wonder; adventure was your ground. In the UP, these wild places served much more definitively as vacation spots, with large populations coming from Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Lansing, Detroit, and so on. I had the distinct feeling that many families were on a consolation trip in a year when all other travel was canceled. It was tight in these places; the vibe was grumpy, even suspicious. The campground host came by our camp the next morning twice to ask if we were leaving (no host has ever asked me that). And at Lehto’s Pasties in St. Ignace, I could feel the cashier’s anger at replacing our meat-filled pasties with the vegetarian ones we ordered (“I thought you said beef,” she barked―I made a joke about not having learned to talk through my mask yet, but for hours I stewed on whether “vegetarian” could seriously be misconstrued as “beef.”). I hate to condemn a place based on petty consumer complaints like this, but these were pretty much the only interactions we had there, and they were some of the most negative we’d had all year (ahh, a memory of being completely ignored in bars in New Orleans). And just seeing it all, I felt for its hurt: I’m not sure if it was COVID or a longer falling-apart, but things were empty and kind of rundown, and yet it still felt crowded. It was suffering. Stir in all that political advertising bullshit, and it was bitter indeed. It was hard to get the taste of meat out of my mouth.

January 8th now, Friday. Winters in the Pacific Northwest can be an interminable string of days where nothing changes. The same gray luminosity at 8am and 1pm and 3pm, barely 5 degrees difference between day and night, slight wind or slight rain or just the faint noise of traffic. My wife asked me this morning if I felt, after our first full week back (she at work), holed up in this house, if I was going crazy. What is crazy? Were the people who stormed the Capitol this week crazy? I read some man-on-the-street interviews with some of the rioters, a profile of the woman who died. I read about the 25th Amendment, think the same thoughts about Trump I’ve had since 2015. There are no surprises anymore, just escalations. This latest emergency feels only like the next in a long string of emergencies, going back to 9/11. This is most of my adult life. But it has me suspended above the task of this writing, withheld from it. It doesn’t feel important, complaining about some place, recounting the pros and cons of a trip. But then neither does the Capitol, a bunch of dudes breaking into it just to smoke some cigarettes and take a lot of selfies. For so many people in America, in the world, every day is, if not an emergency, a long corridor of threats. I know though that this is the time, for me, for this writing. This is the time I’ve been allotted. All I can hope is to be honest, to try and find something useful.

When we arrived to Howell, MI, texting with our friends, we were told to kill some time so they could do a walkthrough with the agent. We were one person above the listed capacity and didn’t want it to be an issue. My wife and I parked at a narrow little dock off an adjacent lake and cracked open some PBRs. Cattails bobbed all around us while dragonflies flitted against the low water of the muddy shoreline. The light struck me, for the first time in the Midwest, as beautiful, brassy and dynamic, full of verve, as though the air itself were swinging like a bell. We drank two beers each, very fast, listening to the radio, then got the all-clear from our friends and drove up into the neighborhood, arriving at a very large house on an acre of property that sloped grassily down, amid tall elms, to a boathouse and dock on a sizeable lake. We exploded into salutations, elbow bumps and some hugs and immediate drinks, unloading our cars and picking bedrooms and quickly settling on the large back deck. We felt secure with each other, and the interiors of the house were spacious and unconfined, but we still all preferred being outside. L. brought the Elijah Craig out, a special vintage barreled the year L., J., and my wife turned 21 (it was but one of at least a half dozen different bottles of bourbon for the weekend), and we raised a toast to the birthdays. Within an hour we were drunk, establishing the weekend’s extended jokes and already sweating through our t-shirts. The afternoon started to swirl.

The next few days were, as one might expect, a blur. My wife and I took a trip into Ann Arbor for groceries at Zingerman’s and the farmer’s market, but downtown was crowded and we tried to make haste of it. Our friend S. works at a flagship liquor store in Chicago and, along with L., helped facilitate a real collection of the newest beers (lactose being a trend that summer), the aforementioned library of bourbons, wine, vodka for Bloody Marys, and some absinthe for New Orleans dinner night Sazeracs (this is the same crew with whom we spent Mardi Gras). Cannabis, Adderall, mushrooms, coffee and caffeine pills. We had a canoe, paddleboat, one two-person kayak and two one-person ones; some inner tubes, a pool float in the likeness of a pizza slice. Most of us are either musicians or deep lovers of music, so numerous speaker setups, jockeying of DJ reins. The house had no wifi, but it did have a small TV/VCR combo and a large collection of VHS tapes. The frustrating interruption of nude Brooke Shields scenes with shoddy B-roll of undersea life (“fucking hermit crabs,” as we kept exclaiming) in The Blue Lagoon became one of the longer-lasting extended jokes (we probably watched the movie four times, usually with Bloody Marys). The boathouse had a large firepit. L. and J. brought a pretty serious badminton setup. A. taught us frisbeer (jam a broomstick into the ground, put a 4ft piece of PVC pipe with a cap on one end around it like a condom, set a beer bottle on top, try to knock the bottle off with a frisbee; put two of these poles maybe 40 feet apart, attackers and defenders alternating, a rudimentary scoring system, but mostly just try to nail the thing). We had a lot of eggs and cheese, bags of bread, a case of Topo Chico.

It was very humid. One day it rained pretty badly, and at times it felt like we were sparring with the weather. But mostly we just enjoyed each other’s company, catching up with that hyperactive commerce of music, TV, movies, restaurant, beer, and liquor recommendations that characterizes so many cohorts such as ours, childless urbanites. We talked about work and COVID, Trump and our roadtrip. We’d have Bloodies on the dock, stepping squeamishly into the sludgy shallows of the water that surrounded it. We’d paddle the lake, often towing the pizza slice―sometimes all the way out to a goose-shit covered floating platform on which we drank yet more beer, diving with exertion into the mid-lake depths, and sometimes to the opposite shore choked in lilies and harboring one of the most serious dragonfly orgies I’ve ever seen. One afternoon we swamped the paddleboat so badly we thought we were going to lose it. The day we left we had to retrieve one of the kayaks from the middle of the lake, victim of an ill-conceived midnight excursion. Often we were inside-a-crystal-ball drunk by 10am. There was a lot of napping, a lot of indigestion. The lower-story bathroom by the washer and dryer (the “dad toilet,” as some might call it) was my home away from home. I slept, mostly, on the floor. The kitchen island became a puzzle of the edible and inedible. There was an incident with some cheese puffs. But for the most part things remained intact. We spent the evenings back and forth between the fiery crackle of our immense boathouse fires and the electric one of the bug zapper hung beneath the deck, where we had quick access to snacks, the bathroom, brief respites on the couch, and of course, more beer. Somehow my wife and S. rallied us, after one all-day sequence of pretty much every inebriant in the inventory I listed above, to execute a complicated recipe of deep-fried mushroom or oyster Po Boys and the aforementioned Sazeracs for the aforementioned New Orleans dinner night, our most upstanding moment of the whole weekend. Mornings the grass was wet with dew. We saw a fox. We saw a sandhill crane. We watched Dumb And Dumber. We played the ever-living shit out of frisbeer.

Firepit shenanigans

Sunset on the lake

January 11th. My phone just buzzed to let me know that House Democrats have introduced an article of impeachment against Trump. Outside the street is greasy with rain and the sky is thick. It’s Monday; little distinguished this weekend save a few walks, a half hour at the farmer’s market. It rains. My phone buzzes again with another headline. What I write about is a fantasy.

It was a blowout, and I’m so grateful we were able to do it. This bender began an acute period in our trip that we always knew was going to be dense with activity and require a lot of coordination: my wife’s birthday immediately followed by our trip to Alaska. We always knew there would be two inverted energies―one pulling people together in celebration and the other preparing for the most remote isolation we would go into. COVID, of course, threw everything into question. We weren’t sure how we could see people safely, if at all, and we certainly weren’t sure if we were going to make it to Alaska. A lot of the decisions for this period played out in June while we sat in Town Park in Telluride, as I mentioned earlier. Initially we weren’t going to go back to the Midwest, thinking we would celebrate my wife’s birthday with friends in the Northwest, perhaps on the Oregon coast, but COVID had really closed a lot of the West Coast and we realized the Chicago suburbs would be a better place to keep our car and road gear while we were in Alaska. Plus, all of our loved ones there.

It was also in Town Park when we learned that Alaska would institute new travel restrictions and that Denali had closed Wonder Lake. The latter, especially, left us with an abiding pessimism―the rest of June and July we were waiting for the park to close entirely. But the weeks went by and it never did. I talked to rangers on several occasions, to suss out the new rules that year and get guidance on my route, but also to gauge their own confidence in the park’s continuing operation. We braced for closure, but went ahead with our plans, making four notable alterations because of COVID. First, my hike would be shorter: not from Wonder Lake but from Eielson Visitor Center. Second, I would submit the permit application ahead of time. Ordinarily backcountry permits at Denali are issued on a first-come/first-served basis, but this year the backcountry office would be closed (except for a brief orientation and permit check each morning, outside on the porch) and they would accept applications by email a few weeks in advance. This had me, one morning at the Michigan house, delaying the debauchery so I could submit my itinerary, hotspotting my computer with my phone held high, a Trails Illustrated topo map of the park spread out across a litter of empty glasses and VHS tapes. Third, we would get COVID tests before flying. This requirement, too, had a dynamic―initially Alaska was giving free tests to visitors upon arrival, but they announced an end to that program effective two days before we were going to get there, so we had to scramble a little bit, paying out-of-pocket (because we had out-of-state insurance) for tests scheduled within the now familiar 72 hour window of travel. Fourth, we would rent an AirBnB for the entirety of our six-week stay (even though we would be camping for a lot of it), in the event our tests came back positive and we needed to quarantine.

I did then, and I do now recounting it all, feel shame. We were taking risks, probably putting other people at risk. Flying alone was an activity most of the people we knew wouldn’t undertake. To do so to an isolated locale with limited medical resources, after a weekend bender with friends and days seeing family in a major metropolitan area, was very irresponsible. We long debated, regardless of the state’s response to COVID, simply canceling our trip to Alaska. We also debated celebrating my wife’s birthday in some wilderness, with just ourselves. But both events had been major parts of our excitement for the year. We’d already lost other ones. Alaska loomed so large in my mind, it was difficult to see around it. We were making decisions in the heat of movement, had fallen deeply into the rhythms of improvisation. If we could put a step forward, we would, in accordance with a few absolutes: limit our time indoors and follow every guideline mandated by a location. While I feel shame about this period, we broke no rules. We’d get tests; we’d be ready to quarantine. We’d build in additional days to isolate following the birthday get-togethers. Flights were staggering seating, and of course we would wear masks for the duration of the travel, eating and drinking as little as possible. And we would arrive in Alaska itself with nearly four weeks of food, prepared to be yet again alone in great open spaces―the largest COVID risk there would be the four hour bus ride from Denali’s entrance to the Eielson Visitor Center, and that, too, would be at a fractional capacity, everyone apart and in masks. I recount this now as I did to myself then, as justifications.

We drove on, west from Howell and into the thickly tangled network of Chicagoland highways and bypasses. Many days proceeded in lockstep as we moved swiftly through that circulatory system, making preparations for Alaska and arranging a three-day capsule over my wife’s actual birthday to see friends and our two families. The first of those days, my wife’s actual birthday, was a great failing of mine, though we got to see our lakehouse friends again, this time at one of their condos on the north side of Chicago. We enjoyed a lovely summer day on their patio and wandering around the Graceland Cemetery (easily spotting a large deer Chicagoans had been talking about all summer (with a bit of residual excitement from the previous summer’s Humboldt Park alligator), and it was strange though good to get a brief sense for the city’s vibe during COVID, but I couldn’t muster any special plans and the tribute to my wife never emerged. Of course this was a year when most celebrations and memorials―birthdays, retirements, anniversaries, planned-for-months weddings, funerals―were canceled or greatly attenuated, but for my part the failure didn’t feel even as much due to COVID as the pressures of our own itinerary―I didn’t keep that plate spinning. And that was the plate for her.

Resident deer of Graceland Cemetery in Chicago

But the following days were better: barbecue with my wife’s family, drinking more lactose beers (Hop Butcher’s “Blazed Orange Milkshake,” my wife’s brother always to be trusted in these matters) to power an epic tournament of bags (aka corn hole) with the nieces and nephews; then a barbecue with my family, where we got to swim for what would be the last time in my parent’s pool. More than birthday parties, these were collective reprieves for everyone we knew, the first time many had seen anyone beyond those living in the same house. We caught up, especially with the kids, learning how you do PhysEd via ZOOM, the loopholes for getting your driver’s license (two of our nieces were sidelined by COVID in getting theirs), and a lot about team sports, or the lack thereof. We internet-shopped for cars with my wife’s brother (he would be taking care of ours while we were away), learning that COVID had everyone on the market, driving up prices (we’d learn the same thing later about rural real estate outside of Seattle). At my parents, my volleyball-loving niece taught us how to properly bump and set, the super chlorinated water heaving and sparkling as we tried to break each new record (occasionally sabotaged by the too-good-to-resist spike). All weekend we played games, ate corn on the cob, and gossiped, routing around in our social networks to find both Trump supporters and those who had tested positive (up until that point we hardly knew anyone in either category). They were full days, bright and hot and heavy with summer. Staring up from the deck or the pool, the sky looked like a gel.

~

The Storm

I wake up to our friend S. on the local news, at the liquor store, sweeping up glass and looking above her face mask at the reporter who is stepping over the debris to get into frame. The sound of the glass is heavy, like gravel: you can tell it is wet. I’m at my sister’s house in Elgin but this is in the city. The light in the shot is harsh, coming in hard from the windows, and the jelly-wobble of the handheld camera has me feeling slightly sick to my stomach. The cameraperson nearly points the camera down as they, too, step over the debris. Cut to mayor Lori Lightfoot―these weren’t protesters, these were hooligans. The constant sound of camera shutters and flicker of flashes on her face. More questions. Cut to some nighttime footage now, a helicopter flying over the Magnificent Mile. The clean, round corner of an apparel store is wedged into the upper-right portion of the shot; on the lower left, two police cruisers careen in, parking askew in the empty street. A lithe body presses through a half-cracked opening in the store entrance, emerging awkwardly, then taking off down the street, out of frame. Cut to a daytime shot again, the Best Buy in Lincoln Park, the helicopter circling around it. The windows look like they’ve been blown out from the inside. Immense piles of tattered boxes, lids flapping gently in the wind, form a perimeter around the store. Cut back to S., who is in the background of an interview with another employee, tugging at his mask as he talks into the windscreen-capped microphone held in front of his face. Cut back to the mayor. More questions. Cut back to the night before, a patchwork of helicopter footage. Drink coffee.

Then I am standing at the counter of the service department, watching the clerk mouse quickly through her schedule on the cashier computer, punching occasional keys on the plastic-covered keyboard. On the television in the corner of the waiting room, above a display of tire treads, a ten-year-old Morgan Brittany is high-kicking in a puffy pink dress, a line of newsie boys behind her on single-knee, presentation hand extended, while the trombones wallop a swing tempo. They can fit us in. We’ll be the last oil change that day. Standing on the curb outside, my wife and I discuss the possibility of walking the few miles back to my sister’s house. We look for a grocery store nearby on our phones. Nothing. One other customer waits inside, and we decide to go back in. Now Rosalind Russell twirls around a businessman seated at a small table in a tight, green-wallpapered apartment, a half a dozen other cast crowded in the corners. She sings, setting the table around him: “have a dish, have a fork, have a fish, have a pork.” Outside, the cloud deck is mid-sky, but we can sense the daylight dimming. We figure it will be about two hours. Only the one other customer in the waiting room, staring blankly up at Russell as she moves with a sort of firm delicacy through the shot, which continues to be awkwardly congested with cast members. I look at the small text on my phone that gives the details of tomorrow’s COVID test. I read more about the crime spree the night before. Time passes. News, phone, more of Gypsy, until it’s Natalie Wood, with Russell, and Karl Malden, on some kind of desert set, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and swaying side-to-side between cactus paddles and what I gather are ocotillo. The song is so unmusical, but I sit transfixed. Then the clerk breaks it―the car is ready. Faster than we thought. A mechanic pulls it into the lot right in front of us. I readjust the seat and stare through the windshield at the sky. One half is the same chrome color it’s been all day. The other, delineated by a very hard edge like the pressing of a pencil with one’s full body weight, is the brackish color of water in a pothole. It is clearly a wave, in the sky. Suddenly, a scraping sound. A large elm branch, freshly severed, slides in the wind across the parking lot.

The next few minutes escalate quickly. We start west toward the river, staring at the immense dark line in front of us. The wind shakes the car. We know it’s coming toward us. Our route is west only to route 25, where we’ll turn north to get to Summit, where we’ll then turn back east toward my sister’s. We drive fast, barreling uphill as the road narrows in approach of the historic district, and it’s at its sign, “Elgin Historic District,” written on the rounded corner of a retaining wall, where we turn north, and where the wave catches us. Immediate lightning and thunder, not deep and rumbling but an ear-piercing treble, a factory’s worth of glass windows shattering against a concrete floor. The flash is blinding. Rain erupts, hitting our windshield and hood like stones. The traffic lights are out, and they bob on the long metal arm with three or four feet of elastic play. We race north, dodging branch debris, tugging against the wind gusts. We make it to Summit, turn east, and accelerate. We clear the storm line, but it continues right behind us, and then, as we turn into the neighborhood, we enter it again. Tree branches are being blown down everywhere. Blue and black refuse bins are getting toppled on the curbs and in the street―some are being wheeled around by the wind in crazy patterns, like maniacal figure skaters. We get to the house. We pull into the driveway and run inside. In a few minutes we’ll text our friends, who had just expanded their brewery, that we can’t make it there to see it. We’ll stand in the open garage and watch the rain pummel our car as it sits in the driveway.

Then we are driving through Mt. Greenwood in the uncanny sunshine, staring at all the damage, downed trees having been roped off, enormous piles of branches built at the edges of lawns, garbage bags in heaps at the ends of driveways. Traffic lights are still out. Later, we’ll visit another friend at the bar that she owns, using our phones to light the bathroom between drinks on the sun-drenched front deck where we wave off a continuous stream of disappointed patrons. But for now, we are headed to the clinic, which, miraculously, still has power. Our tests are on. We pull into the small parking lot of the clinic’s strip mall, send them a text. We wait, eventually cracking the windows of the car to vent the heat, which has returned too quickly. I watch a short timelapse of the storm pass right through Chicago’s skyline before moving out over Lake Michigan. My wife is called. Then I am. The swab tickles. The nurses are nice. I am reminded, yet again, that the frontlines of the virus are young women in their early twenties, nervous, friendly. We get our slips of paper, our doctor’s notes, which we’ll show to another cadre of young women two days from now as we exit the Anchorage airport. Back in the car, I get a text from my mom. It’s a picture of an enormous tree bough smashed right down the side of the pool, the grass around it matted heavily from the emptied water.

Wyoming (and a little bit of Montana)

I hear it first, it being hidden, and follow my hearing upslope over padded forest debris and into the gentle fold of the drainage. Moss covered stones the size of heads are chaotically affixed in the duff and dark soil, knobbily protruding from the gully’s sides, and from this unflowing portion I follow my hearing farther upslope beneath the templed forest until the creekbed turns to join its greater flowing channel, whose edge I follow into a wider and yet wider flowing, at its widest three or four meters, and then I am within the intimate realm of its crashing noise. I am coming for the water, to fill a bag of it, but I am distracted by a sudden architecture, an enormous fallen Douglas fir bridging the width of the creek, in diameter the fir itself about a meter, where it is anchored at each of the creek’s banks nurseries of fern and fir and red-banded polypores, mist from the minor falls of the creek clinging in jewels to the deep crevices of the tree-bridge’s gnarled bark and the lush moss hanging from it. I ascend the right slope and step highly over the dry-rotted boughs and up onto the bridge, which I straddle, scooting bit by bit until I am centered over the rushing creek, whitewater boiling cleanly downward over smooth stone, and here the width of the tree allows me to pull my legs into a fold beneath my butt, and I sit in repose. I smoke a little bit, and I feel high, the creek pushing a gentle column of cool, wet air across my body, an oblique sunlight striping golden through the high canopy of the old growth forest. Nothing but the full sound of the water. This is the North Cascades, 2017, and I decide it is a place to which I will return.

Then I have been on the road, for a few weeks, mid-January 2020 now―this sabbatical―and I am very far south, having almost palpably felt the transition from the temperate pine forests blanketing Alabama and Georgia into the tropics of Florida, where my wife and I are slowly paddling our canoe along the mangrove edges of Jewel Key, trying to rotate our position around an ibis, perched one-legged amid the city of arching mangrove roots, and, peering into the quick darkness of that forest’s tremendous density I realize I am searching for movement, any movement in there, as an affirmation.

Driving slowly along the edge of Audubon Park in New Orleans, its Oak Allée angles ever so briefly into perfect alignment, and I am astonished that we hadn’t seen it over the previous hours walking the park. The live oaks, each in their century-old twisted reaching expression, stretch near perfect horizontal boughs across the width of the alley, nearly touching as fingertips might, moss curtaining cool dark shade at their bases, and I think mostly of time and its depth and stillness.

Midway up the climb into the Chisos Mountains in the Chihuahuan desert we level out into a hanging valley full of plump sotols, their feathered stems shooting in erratic tipped angles upward from sharp rosette bases, clenching the wet air that is clean with the smell of after-rain creosote.

I wake in the tent and feel the soft sand beneath me and can see the grayish-yellow light filtering through the massive canopy of the cottonwood, flashes of a yellow warbler blotting in this vaguely assembled luminosity that shines through the tent’s fabric. A noise, a farther morning bacchanal, permeates the nearer proximity, and it’s a new sound I have never heard, maybe the amorous cooing of crows, or some other species more foreign to me, their calls bouncing in almost digital distortions from the immense sandstone walls of Coyote Gulch, where we are camped, and I lie there and picture the cottonwood’s deeply cracked, plaster-colored trunk and its hard, slow growth into the massive curved boughs that suspend its canopy like a brush against the hanging gardens that drip with water from hidden springs high in the sandstone walls, where I know the mysterious birds with their alien sound must be in their acute morning social routine.

Every Joshua tree must have a name that precedes “Joshua.”

We cross a threshold of sun, descending some hoodoos, which we’d been clamoring atop all morning, in Grand Staircase-Escalante, and on a pocket of level ground we squat beneath a pinyon pine, surprised, and grateful, that its small but many needles accumulate enough shade beneath the totalizing light of noon.

It rains and rains and rains all morning as I climb the gnarly bed of Moose Creek beneath Mt. Galen in Denali National Park in Alaska, sliding in dark mud and wet clay, eventually ascending a small tributary drainage onto a gentle slope of hip-high brush willow, through which I follow a faint game trail until I crest the low pass. A small break with trailmix and a pause in rain, watching dramatic clouds strafe the slopes of Thoroughfare Ridge, and then I drop onto the other side of the pass and along a drainage that I think must also be called Moose Creek, though I am uncertain and have found no help in maps. Following a bluff along the creek until I see the choking vegetation of the creekbed thin satisfactorily, I drop down and find myself in a hidden dream, golden overhead willows loosened along meandering creek channels that turn through heavy carpets of brilliant, neon-green moss. The luminescence of the yellow and green feels substantial, with a saturated depth whose body is enhanced by the dreary rain-choked air, and I think that this is a place that yet has no belief in an outside world, and I feel careful as a visitor, though I walk its few miles with purpose, flushing willow ptarmigan every few hundred feet, their heavy flapping feathers as they break seeming to leave a hanging dust amid the willows, even as it continues to rain. I call for bears. I walk, the ptarmigan break, and it rains. I never take a photograph.

Our hike is an endless monotony of dark lodgepole forest, in and out of low depressions and clouds of mosquitoes, but I delight in the movement and to be with friends there in Yellowstone, anticipating the reveal of Sportsman Lake and Electric Peak.

Julian Price is a large campground off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Boone, NC, and while we think it will be busy it is still midweek, and we have chosen a loop on the other side of the road from the lake. Where we are camped, at a bend in the campground road, it is nearly empty and extremely spacious, the immense beech trees cradling our camp in a fairytale hardwood clearing. It is autumn and their bright yellow leaves absolutely dazzle in the morning light, falling like confetti as the upper winds rattle the canopies musically. I cannot take a photo wide enough to accommodate the scene or any sense of being within it, which was our immediate joy emerging from our tent, waiting for our coffee to boil, and stretching our limbs in the cool air.

But then there was the whitebark pine . . .

~

The writing evades me. I think of it far more than I do it, though I hardly make notes. I think of the way the writing will return to the moment I am thinking, which is sometimes immediately in front of the subject, sometimes recalling the subject later, while driving or lying in bed, still not writing, but simply thinking. I think of my earlier writing, when I discussed time and memory, and memory as time travel, and I think writing in memory, and more and more distant memory, is a time travel that requires greater fitness, attention, technology. When I set out with this travelogue I had a rough goal of a post every two weeks, posts occupying around two thousand words and of a certain clarity of description and analysis. I knew it was wishful, and I have tried not to be disappointed when I have failed at this pace, which was an almost immediate and unfaltering failure. I am now attempting to write about things that have happened more than four months ago, a third of the entirety of the duration of the travelogue, of our trip, our sabbatical. My one excuse is that we have been very busy, but I know it’s also a matter of will and imagination, which maybe are also forgivably suppressed by the constant reckoning with new environments, a categorical period of ingestion rather than output. However I might characterize it, I know that the writing I do must be different now. I worry about what I have forgotten, and yet with time comes perspective―it is as though clarity and meaningfulness have, counter-intuitively, an inverted relationship: the more of one, the less of the other. I am hoping I can exert more fitness, attention, and technology, now that I am here in this home in Albuquerque for a precious few weeks.

And so we left the front range of Colorado, in late June, and proceeded through a series of fluid, greasy days, taking a route that moved us west along northern Colorado until we reached its far northwest corner, where we would turn north into western Wyoming in an approach of the Wind River Range, which begins, from the south, Wyoming’s Rocky Mountain spine, a diverse region of high country that includes the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, and Yellowstone’s Absaroka and Gallatin Ranges, which extend into Montana. Our first day driving we got a timed entry into Rocky Mountain National Park (the first time we had encountered this particular COVID precaution) and, following a delightful patio lunch at our favorite spot in Estes Park, The Wapiti Colorado Pub, drove route 34 to traverse the park east to west on the section known as Trail Ridge Road. It was our last ultra-high-country foray in Colorado, and we tried to savor the otherworldly feel of the extensive 10,000ft terrain, though crowds and traffic gave us a sense of urgency. We descended into Grand Lake and continued west for a few more hours, climbing again until we crested lovely Rabbit Ears pass, from which we dropped, with commanding views, into the valley of Steamboat Springs, which we entered and left on our way in search of a camp that eventually had us driving north on route 129 through a picturesque valley that edges along the western edge of Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, into which we soon turned east to find a camp, all alone, at the fairly worn-out Hinman Park Campground, enjoying whiskies on a splintering picnic table set in a topsy-turvy meadow accented with dwarf conifers.

Peering into the Canyon of Lodore

The next day we continued west toward Dinosaur National Monument, cutting northwest onto the rugged and remote route 318 that would take us up to a camp we hoped to find at Gates of Lodore (we were endlessly tickled by the Lord of the Rings–sounding name, to the point of taking a pic of our Google Maps arrival page). This camp seems mostly to serve as a put-in for float trips down the Green River, and when we arrived we found it pretty open, taking a camp beneath a beautiful cottonwood tree in a mowed clearing of a sage flat at the edge of the opening to the stunning Canyon of Lodore. Within seconds of pulling up to our camp we could see mosquitoes landing on our car windows, and, knowing that car windows don’t really emit carbon dioxide or heat or body orders or other mosquito attractants, I became apprehensive, and indeed, mosquitoes would become one of the central features not only of our two days at Dinosaur but the entire month of July.

So we doused ourselves in picaradin and actively dreaded the high-mosquito-density mornings and dusks and anytime we needed to venture into the sagebrush to pee. Some high winds helped that first day, as did a hike up into the Canyon of Lodore following a pamphlet-led interpretive trail (similar, though not quite as charming, as one we had followed at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison (okay it was the Warner Point Nature Trail, and its pamphlet text, halftones, and neat stapled binding (which I admired as a book publisher) are a true labor of love for the remembrance of early conservationist Mark Warner)) through the beautiful dwarf-forest of juniper, pinyon, and gambel that was now so familiar to us. On our second day at Dinosaur we decided to escape the bugs by driving northwest into Utah, along one of the most remote roads we’ve been on, for a daytrip to Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, where we enjoyed a blissful and mostly mosquito-free day cruising around the canyon’s rims (where we spotted some bighorn sheep) and eventually setting up on the beach of Sunny Cove, where we found cliff jumps that reached nearly forty-feet in height, making for an exhilarating afternoon with the crystal-clear waters.

The morning we left Dinosaur the mosquitoes were so bad that we had to chaos-pack, chucking our tent and gear loose in the car as quickly as possible and getting out of there. We stopped briefly in some high hills above the river to try and make some coffee, but the mosquitoes were bad there, too, so we just drove on, back toward Flaming Gorge where we took route 191 for another stunning drive, this time along a high, windswept plateau that eventually descended toward I-80 and the town of Rock Springs, where I watched some teenage Starbucks employees gently but firmly rebuke a maskless patron (I have been so impressed with how well very young service and retail workers have enforced COVID measures all across the country).

I’m not getting out of this tent

We were in Pinedale by early afternoon, and, after checking out a few campgrounds in the foothills of the Wind River Range (from here on out “the Winds”), found a nice spot at one of the largest ones, Fremont Lake. The Winds were always one of a half dozen trips we knew we wanted to be part of this sabbatical, but we were always challenged with their timing, knowing their season to be short (something like mid-July to mid-September), especially for our ambitions of doing a high-route or something comparable. We knew, arriving at Fremont Lake on the last week of June, that the trip was improbable, but I was eager, after having only done one relatively easy backpack in Colorado, to do something substantial there. I routed several itineraries, trying to find ones that walked a good middle-ground of doability and challenge, but when I finally talked to a ranger at the Pinedale office of Bridger-Teton National Forest, she about laughed in my face over the phone. It was definitely too early; road access alone might be an issue. We debated what to do. One issue was the approaching Fourth of July weekend―we now had a nice camp that could take us through the holiday, but that would mean being there (with relatively little to do) for quite awhile, shortening our time for other adventures that month. And the weather was unfriendly, with lots of rain and cold. We decided to stay one extra day―in which we would hike from the Elkhart-Pine Creek trailhead down to Long Lake, where we would watch its tremendous early-season outflow into Fremont Creek, the most dramatic transition from stillwater to whitewater I have ever seen―then pack up and head north to the Tetons.

The morning we left was another chaos-pack. Persistent rain the evening before had turned, overnight, into snow, which continued in a rain-snow admixture far enough into the morning that we could no longer wait it out. We packed quickly, shivering as we threw our loose, wet tent into the car, trying to get the dexterity back in our fingers by holding them in front of the dashboard heaters. We treated ourselves to some single-origin coffees from the excellent Pinedale Coffee Supply, then continued on the now very familiar route 191 toward Jackson. It was such a brief and uncomfortable foray, during which the Winds stood tantalizing close, their vertical relief, as I’d follow it upward with my eyes, so quickly obscured by the unbudging blanket of clouds. As we left Pinedale, I immediately started manipulating our schedule in my mind to see if we might return, but this activity was just as quickly pushed aside as we ascended into the mountains and the beauty of the north unfolded.

~

1. The way you move it’s right in time

I am sitting at the kitchen table next to some tulips we bought yesterday and enjoying the New Mexico autumn sun filtering through the screen door, listening to Bill Monroe sing “Body and Soul.” Earlier this year I wrote about this trip upsetting my sense of rhythm, whether sleep and appetite or just the feel of days or minutes, a Carnival parade passing or the hours-long sunsets of Alaskan late summers or the continuous circling of a Gulf Shore pelican or watching, as I am, these tulips imperceptibly unfold. In 95 degree heat, we lamented that we had arrived too late to the Canyonlands; in six inches of snow, we felt too early for the San Juans. Wait―my god, no lie, just as I was about to write this next sentence, Bill Monroe turned into Lucinda Williams singing the very song that comprises this section title. I almost can’t write I am so overwhelmed from the coincidence (this playlist has about 14,000 tracks in it). A moment please (“I take off my watch and my earrings . . .oooh baby”). Okay, here is that next sentence: So when we slid into the last available campsite at Signal Mountain in Grand Tetons National Park, just in time for the Fourth of July weekend, we felt like we had hit a certain stride. In March COVID knocked us on a back foot, and for the three months that followed we moved with a herky-jerky caution and embraced an even more improvisational road life than we had anticipated needing to do, navigating closures, crowds, and small rural grocery stores with an aching anxiety. By the time we made it to the Tetons we were feeling, not unanxious, but subsumed in the anxiety. We felt in time with it.

First day in Tetons, heaven-light through the high altitude moisture, Tom Waits, as always, killing it

2. Loretta’s singing on the radio

Like many, I enjoy music with my movement. I once opened heavy student union doors onto a brilliant snow-covered University of Illinois quad in perfect sync to Miles Davis’s opening solo in “So What,” a modal/snare brush hop down, as though off a retaining wall, into Jimmy Cobb’s single cymbal strike decaying glitterfully as I walked into the ice-bright snow. Ascending from the Blue Line into the Bauhaus canyon of the Chicago Loop with Philip Glass’s “Music in Twelve Parts” hammering my Audiotechnica ATH-M50s was, for many years, a morning work-commute modernist devotional routine (alt: same headphones and commute, transferring at the Washington stop through the retail mall of Block 37 with Bomba Estéreo just ripping “Rocas” (“Bulla, bulla, hagamos una bulla Donde la energía y la música te fluya”) the smell of cinnamon buns and perfume acrid against my still sleepy senses). I’ve flown the red eye from Seattle to New York half a dozen times with a deep immersion into Dark Side of the Moon (strong memory of one arrival, then, over an early-morning Manhattan, to the grindy/rattly/thumpy opening of “Father and Grandpa” on dj Khalab’s Black Noise 2084). Morning bike commutes in the dark luminosity of Seattle winters with the band Television (“It was a tight toy night, streets so bright / The world was so thin between my bones and skin.”). Bluegrass snowboarding A-basin. And this year too, for which Waylon Jennings’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” and The War on Drugs’s “Under Pressure” turned from preliminary pep songs to bonafide anthems (the first memorable in cobalt early winter morning light driving I-90 in the picturesque valley of the Clark Fork, the latter a foggy morning leaving Lafayette, IN). Reese McHenry’s No Dados would carry us through our first tour of the South; Vendredi Sur Mer for Mojave desert quarantine happy hours. And we listened to the entirety of Tom Waits’s Mule Variations once driving out of the Indian Creek unit of Bears Ears National Monument and again along the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and so I was elated to blast “Big in Japan” while facing, dead-on, the moody Tetons, which were gradually undressing from the moisture that had been parked over Wyoming for weeks and making our time in Pinedale so uncomfortable. We drove so much up and down the Tetons and circling Yellowstone’s giant roundabout network of roads, taking numerous pull-offs to tailgate wildlife or explore geothermal features or take in commanding views, but the music on all of those drives was mostly shuffle, enjoyable, but hardly deliberate. So late in our time there we were itching to have a really good jam. We eventually found a moment, our last day in Yellowstone, after a long afternoon with friends perched above the bison of the Lamar Valley. We had no camp booked and were just going to drive south, trying to slide in somewhere. After we made our southward turn in Mammoth, we climbed up onto the plateau of Yellowstone’s caldera, and the air started glowing with a sunset gold. We hit play: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

3. June bug vs hurricane

In my pocket notebook I have a page devoted to this overscratched fine-point scrawl: Human in a Landscape. I loathe the self-presentation of, say, the Instagram culture of hiking, in which landscape serves as an emphasis of personal achievement and narrative. Perhaps it is ironic that such emphasis is so ephemeral, that photos and narratives come and go as swiftly as one’s actual presence in any given place. Regardless better for sure to be audience, and little else, to landscape, and hence my fetish for Leave No Trace and Ultralight, which, as I’ve mentioned earlier, were guiding principles of our trip. When COVID hurricaned turbulence into our motion, our best reliance was being light, little more than a car and ourselves, little more than calorie-dense plant-based foods and a few premium survival tools, high-quality down and wool (woops, no longer vegetarian), technical synthetics, lithium batteries, and a tolerance for dirt and exhaustion. By Wyoming we were really, really trying to flutter. I think we did.

Now we can see them

4. Sun came up it was another day
and the sun went down you were blown away

We did four backpacks in Wyoming (well, two had short spells in Montana). The first was in the Tetons, up the tremendous Paintbrush Canyon, with a permit for the wonderfully named Outlier Camp and a further dayhike up to Holly Lake, which was perfectly halfway in its release of deep-set winter ice, the snow there all slushy and gushy and blinging out itty bitty little daisies in great abundance wherever the snow gave way to a patch of soil in the sun. We asked marmots for permission to have a snack on their rocks, and we had one of the most respectfully recognize-each-other-as-humans conversations with the backpackers who preceded us at Outlier, late to vacate the camp because they had done what everyone else we encountered that day had failed at, hiking super sketchy steep snow fields to attain the pass that glimpses the complete other side of the Tetons. But let me show you the side of the Tetons at hand, which incidentally faces due east for perfect next day sunrises:

Glad the birds woke me up in time to take this photo from Outlier camp in Paintbrush Canyon, Grand Tetons

The second backpack was the aptly named Hellroaring Creek, in the far northern district of Yellowstone National Park. The fucking mosquitoes. But god damn it was true, the river water hard and fast and good and my wife and I with each other in a particularly together kind of way, afraid of bears (how about “Carcass Closure” signs (alongside tons of bear scat) to beware you off of the trail that was your entire plan for that day) but yearning to be in stride with the wilderness and otherwise enjoying each other’s company (especially morning coffee on river boulders swarming with frantic mayflys in their tight nuptial window). But again, the mosquitoes. Quick story: after bailing on our dayhike we hauled out into our double hammock and the prophylactic bug net that gave us some rest for the afternoon, too much so, so when we finally realized we ought to cook dinner it was dusk and, as anyone with mosquito PTSD will tell you, the worst possible time, and so it was a negative dinner literally blowing the mosquitoes away from our faces before every bite stolen by way of brief lifts of our headnets. Hang our food and mess kit from the bear pole, retreat to tent, find the stash of cannabis gummies that are still technically food, and so run out in the dark under very small flashlight light in your longjohns and get bit to shit through your fucking longjohns while you try to retie (them just all over your bare hands) the complicated toggle tie you had done perfectly well earlier that day also in hellacious mosquitoes.

Great flowers along Hellroaring Creek though! Pink is sticky geranium, blue/purple is lupine, yellow is cinequefoil

5. And barbed wire

I’ll just say the word “mosquito” again.

6. Did you run about as far as you could go

Right, the other two backpacks! Let’s just talk about the fourth one for now. So we did, in fact, make it back to the Winds. The Winds comprise an enormous granitic spine that runs roughly 100 miles north-southish in western Wyoming and begin, in a manner of speaking, Wyoming’s high-country, as I mentioned earlier. My god these mountains, with the look and feel of the Sierra or the Stuart Range (Enchantments) in the Cascades, or any other similar granite range, and yet wholly their own, a particularly jumbled complexity of soaring towers and peaks whose vertical walls make for world-class climbing and whose interconnected high passes and basins allow for a premiere off-trail high-route, which is how we first heard of the range to begin with.

My backpacking life, in its more serious iteration these recent years, began with a two-week off-trail trip in Alaska in 2016, and in the intervening years exploring the Cascades and Olympic Mountains I’ve been ever more tempted by high-country traverses that leave trails behind, reading about and routing numerous trips that I’ve simply never had the time or courage to do (if anyone wants to string together the East Fork and West Fork of the Foss River over Tank Lakes and Iron Cap Mountain, I have ideas). The Winds quickly became the poster-child for my high-route ambitions, and such a trip allured my wife as well, so the destination was fairly well planted in our hopes for sabbatical.

Dropping down off Washakie Pass with permission of course from that mountain, of the same name, in the Winds

We made it there, but the high route will have to wait for another day. We sort of knew all along it wasn’t likely to happen, given that August, with my wife’s birthday and our trip to Alaska, was always already pretty full. And what I learned is that the Winds have an extensive network of trails that take you through absolutely spectacular country anyway, so with the final days we had in Wyoming we routed a 35 mile loop in the range’s southern section, going from Big Sandy trailhead north and then east over Washakie Pass, into the Washakie Basin and toward Valentine Lake where we would continue climbing to attain the high-elevation Lizard Head Plateau, which runs south from Cathedral Peak to Lizard Head Peak and the North Popo Agie River, which we would then follow west into the picturesque Lizard Head Meadows and on toward the famous and extraordinary Cirque of the Towers, cutting south then over Jackass Pass toward Big Sandy Lake and eventually back out to the trailhead.

We gave ourselves five days to do it but ended up taking only four. It was some of the most incredible hiking I’ve ever done. The southern portion is characterized by a wide, gentle valley very loosely forested and thus affording mostly uninterrupted views of the mountains (especially the western “backside” of the Cirque). The continuous sense of approach sustains ones enthusiasm through the more “boring” terrain and lends a fuller narrative of topographic change and a more ready meaningfulness to one’s movement through the landscape (Denali National Park is very similar in this respect). I love forests, especially in the Pacific Northwest, but they can definitely make for more monotonous approaches to high country and hikes that are more destination-oriented than about the joy of the trip itself (what my wife and I often describe as “switchback slogs through the woods”). In the Winds you can watch the landscape unfold more completely, turning from valley into granite-lined lakes into gentle meadows scooped with mountain-reflecting tarns into rocky fir forest climbs and eventually, climbing passes and onto plateaus, into boulder-strewn high alpine tundra flickering with wildflowers and cradling you aloft among some of the most dramatic mountains you’ll ever encounter. It immediately became one of my favorite places I’ve ever been, and we barely scratched its surface. We will return; we will do the high route.

Have a second cup of coffee with us while I name the mountains of The Cirque of the Towers in the Winds

7. See I got a candle and it burns so bright

My wife has done something like 80 to 90 percent of the planning of this trip. She should really be the one writing all of this out. She is particularly adept at navigating several websites at once, and watching her run through a dozen-tabbed browser open with National Park websites (none of which are ever organized in exactly the same way), local tourism guides, local newspapers or weeklies, trip reports, photo slideshows, AirBnB, Recreation.gov, Google Maps, park maps, campground maps, USFS and DNR and BLM pages, weather reports, (now) local COVID closures/protocols, and maybe the occasional YouTube page, can sometimes border on a transcendent experience. And one wonderful result of her flurry was the understanding that Yellowstone’s geothermal features not only shouldn’t be missed but can be enjoyed without always necessarily needing to be around a billion people.

She developed a plan for one of our days―parking at Biscuit Basin, where we would tour the boardwalk around minor geysers and steaming springs brilliantly colored from rust to canary to cobalt depending on temperatures (cobalt being the hottest) and the particular thermophiles that thrive within its range. From there we would hike an easy couple of miles south, along more springs and geysers and fumeroles, toward Geyser Basin and the most famous feature perhaps of all the National Parks, Old Faithful. Not without a certain amount of arrogance had I basically written-off Yellowstone’s geysers and hot springs, considering them an easy pic for the parking-lot hoi polloi and little more. I’m so glad that my wife, through the lure of an actual hike, got me to them. Our trip from Biscuit to Geyser basins was remarkably devoid of people, and hiking along the burbling and spurting and steaming and fuming features in quiet, far more natural settings, felt very special (as did the lone bison we encountered, dusting down in a small clearing of the lodgepole pine, quite up close!).

Boardwalked Geyser Basin and the full-on hotel-and-restaurants resort (though hotels were closed for COVID) of Old Faithful were definitely crowded, but we masked up and were able to keep our distance, enjoying three pretty spectacular eruptions (Grand Geyser, Castle Geyser, and indeed, Old Faithful) during a full afternoon “gallery hiking” (I coined the term then and have just seen it this week on an information placard at a petroglyph hike we did here in New Mexico) the unique geothermal features amid the bizarre sinter terrain that helps make Yellowstone such a complex place. We would, on subsequent days, see just about every geyser basin in the park, enjoying further sulphurous hellscapes and mudpots and multicolored springs―of note the Grand Prismatic Spring―any of which would play as perfect backdrops for a 70s prog-rock music video.

Apart from their visual interest, I also began to connect with these features dynamism. Old Faithful is named as such because it is one of the rare geysers with a reliable timetable. Most of the geysers eruptions are anticipated within a possible time range, one or two hours, or more often days, or weeks, or months. And some just go when they go. Hiking around the geothermal areas, one also sees many “dead” geysers, left-behind sinter cones that have an eerie resemblance to bleached coral. One often thinks of nature as a kind of bedrock, an immemorial way of being that defines Earth according to an absolute balance. Being in Yellowstone’s thermal regions and seeing how constantly they change, underground reservoirs and vents shifting this way and that, opening new surface features while closing other ones, reinforces the idea that nature is more of a process, season after season slowly evolving eras and epochs. And so it is not a landscape but a process that our appetitive activities impact so much, and when I think of this, as I did so much in all the forests and meadows and mountains of Wyoming, I feel profound confusion.

Grand Geyser, front row seats. We waited about two hours for this eruption; the anticipation (any little burbling sign met with hush) was premium.

8. I think I lost it let me know if you come across it

We had two visits with friends on this leg. Apart from a few brief phone calls (one happenstance when we climbed high into the Tetons and I suddenly had cell phone service), these were the only interactions we had with people whom we knew for all of July. Among the many things COVID has dismantled for everyone, social life is undoubtedly one of the big ones, and for us that truth has had a unique shape fitted to our exceptional experience of traveling during the pandemic. Much of our loneliness can be attributed to our lack of internet and cell phone service (coupled with our distaste for digitally mediated human interaction), but COVID also greatly diminished one of the primary goals of this year altogether, which was to reconnect with our far flung friends and loved ones during what has felt like a crucial middle agedness itself square in the middle of a tumultuous period of American history. We did get to party for Mardi Gras, but we had far more substantial plans to rent cabins, visit new homes, and do a lot of camping with many other folks, much of which didn’t happen.

But some did. My cousin (cousin-in-law) J. had moved to Livingston, MT over the spring, and we were keen to see her and learn how things were going. After our mosquito-laden but otherwise lovely backpack along Hellroaring Creek and a subsequent night of rest at Madison Campground (one of the more popular Yellowstone camps, which I booked the day before going into Hellroaring when we did a first-come/first-served (here on out: FC/FS) check-in at Grant Village Campground, learning that I could daisy-chain FC/FS camps during said check-ins across Yellowstone’s system, which, in response to COVID, actually had no dedicated FC/FS camps (opposite to the Tetons, which was only FC/FS, this difference being one of numerous examples of the chaotic localization of COVID response, even in the case of two federally controlled lands literally six-and-half miles away from each other (across yet a third federally controlled land, the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway (in truth, this is also about a more deep-seated systemic localization of National Park management (see again the note about the frustrating variance of their websites’ organization))), but whose group camps and cancellations they were divvying up for FC/FS, so we got scrappy shared but nonetheless doable (i.e. pandemically spacious enough) digs throughout Yellowstone for all but one of our nights (more on that later)) and so, after Madison Campground (where onlookers marveled at our hammock bugnet) we drove north yet again (the “yet again” being one of the few arguments my wife and I had, over huckleberry ice cream in the little town park of Mammoth Hot Springs), this time completely out of the park, having a patio lunch in Gardiner and then (after a brief and unsuccessful search for camps off Bear Creek Road in the windy sage sloped National Forest outside of Jardine) taking J.’s recommendation for the free BLM boating and fishing camp on the banks of the Yellowstone River, Carbella.

J. wasn’t going to stay the night, but we urged beers and our extra camping gear upon her, and it wasn’t a tremendous fight she put up. I’m glad. In J.’s younger years she worked concessions at Yellowstone, and ever since then Wyoming and Montana were secured as a dreamy next-place for her both her and her wife, my cousin K., the two of whose wedding I officiated, in fact, in Montana, on an extraordinary fly-fishing/ranch getaway property (previously owned by Andie McDowell, I believe!) in a sweeping valley of the Beartooth Mountains outside of Missoula. On this occasion, however, J. and K. were taking a break, J. out there alone, testing the waters and assembling a pitch to K. to do the move there together. I love J., not just as family, but for who she is, for the bold clarity of her emotional intelligence. We talked for hours and hours over dinner and drinks in the descending light about the difficult predicament she and K. were in, about intimacy and partnership, getting older and feeling opportunities either slip away or too concretely harden, dreaming multiple dreams, dreams of the future, those of the past, at once. It was her story, but it was a human story, an adult story, what it means to be, as I’ve said before, right in the middle of a life. We got drunk. In my negligence I left our car doors open with the console lights on, and hundreds of moths gathered inside (when I realized what was happening, I tried desperately to lure them out with a flashlight, but in the end it was a messy affair, and the gray and black dust from their wings still stains portions of our cloth interior today). We ate a little bit, I pitched a very wonky tent for her, and eventually we all retired, though the wind picked up enough that it became pretty much impossible to sleep.

J. left early in the morning, and we proceeded with a little northwestern driving loop outside of Yellowstone, spending a few days in Bozeman before driving south toward Big Sky and the Red Cliff Campground, where we would meet our Seattle friends D. and M. for a three-night backpack crossing between Montana and Wyoming in Yellowstone’s northwestern Gallatin Mountains. Many of our friends are, like us, travel junkies, and like many of our friends D. and M. have spent the pandemic year making, shifting, and canceling tentative plans based on COVID cases, closures, and other people’s decisions about health and safety. We had intended to spend time with them in Los Angeles and the Channel Islands in April, but of course we never made it there. For July, D. and M. were supposed to do a family trip, which fell apart complexly, and so they were left with some time off, us still in their minds, and a doable drive from Seattle to Yellowstone. Only a few days before they were to leave, M. was notified of a COVID exposure from a dentist appointment, and they had to scramble to get tested―those tests were negative, so they were good to go. I admire not only their tenacity but their calm. They pulled up to Red Cliff in the early afternoon with energy and enthusiasm―and while they warned us of the exposure, it was only later that they described the fuller picture of the complications, both COVID and the negotiation of the other trip, they had gone through to be with us.

My wife and I have struggled to find backpacking partners. When we lived in Seattle, D. and M. were just beginning to go on trips with us (only one, really, a rainy but fun September weekend hiking into the Esmeralda Basin in the Teanaway Community Forest just east of Snoqualmie Pass in Washington). The lack of wilderness friends has undoubtedly been another factor of our loneliness both pre- and post- sabbatical/pandemic (it feels sad to use that slashed combination), so we were extremely eager to do this trip with them both because of isolation that year and as a more longstanding achievement of something we’d been seeking for years. I had gotten permits (another parenthetical here: I was able to reserve permits online, no problem, but actually having the permit issued involved―opposite again to the Tetons and their walk-up, plexiglassed backcountry window―dialing and redialing (with faint cell service near the also closed-for-COVID Lake Village Lodge) the telephone number of the backcountry office until I got a ranger, since their “leave a message and we’ll call you back” voicemail never resulted in an actual callback, but I complainingly digress) for a nice little loop following Specimen Creek to Sportsman Lake then back out via Fan Creek (our two cars parked at either trailhead), an itinerary taking us a satisfying depth into the heart of the Gallatin area of Yellowstone.

It was a remote but gentle trip, dense with lodgepole pine forest that one had to commit oneself to in order to discover the numerous hidden meadows―gaspingly picturesque―and romantic riparian valleys in which meandering creeks, in their lazy summer courses, seem to physically slow the sunlight into the long good days that we think of, for all creatures, as abundant with bliss. The sunsets were spectacular (as were, at times, the mosquitoes, and the grass pollen (I was in an antihistamine daze for most of the trip, which perhaps enhanced this slow sense of long light). We only saw a few other parties close to the trailheads (mostly lone fly fishers wading the twisting creeks in a perfect advertisement for Montana’s tourism board), having the immense meadow of Sportsman Lake and its wind-patterned grasses all to ourselves. But what I mostly remember was just being together, talking, a lot, about the uncertainties of COVID and the looming election, but also our own places in life, trying to stay active and healthy, cook good food, and live that unavoidable dynamic of middle life that is the play of nostalgia and hope. D. and M. had, in the past two years, gotten married and bought a house in Seattle (no easy thing to do), and in the course of their commitments had also been navigating new and sometimes challenging professional mazes in modest attempts for happier work cultures and better work-commute-life balance. Both have also nurtured a kind of homesickness (for California and Chicago), and many of their travels, when we’ve known them, have been organized family meetups sustaining their rich sibling and parental relationships. COVID was a tricky player for them, and by July they had that twinned sense of anxiety and fatigue that I’ve now seen among many of my friends and family members who all year have tried to make plans and maintain relationships during this period of surprise separation. It feels good to think that we were there for each other over those few days, and I think that had some cause on our lingering, after the backpack, above a massive bison herd in the Lamar Valley, unwilling to say goodbye until the light got to that certain urgent, late-afternoon color, and we both had to face the fact that neither of us knew where we were sleeping that night as we went our separate directions.

Here comes the gang across the waist-high grasses surrounding Sportsman Lake, Yellowstone

Our pretty tent site on Fan Creek, Yellowstone

9. Don’t tell anybody the secrets

There is a striking difference between the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, and that difference is mountains. Sure, Yellowstone has them, but they pale in comparison to the sheer vertical titans of the Teton Range that alone argue for the area’s protection and celebration. Which is a shame, in a way, for the Tetons, because it makes them something of a pass-through park, good for some pictures on the way to Yellowstone or as a day-trip from Jackson, but not a place in which the majority will linger. But the Tetons have hidden, or hidden-in-plain-sight, places. The alpine meadow at the base of Middle Teton, half-thawed Holly Lake, and even the eastern sagebrush flats (full of mosquitoes) all seemed to whisper wild secrets to me, a kind of language that is unintelligible but full of meaning, something about an area’s completeness, and yet, too, its ephemerality, haunted by generations of consciousnesses and the narratives that attend them (those of sage plants, pine trees, pika, bears, trout, jays, crows, dragonflies, sticky geranium, and even mosquitoes), countless stories of strife and perseverance―a cumulative message of being haunted by life itself. I’d heard and felt this in the hills tucked at the southern feet of the Chisos Mountains, on a rainy afternoon in Dark Canyon in southeastern Utah, paddling a winding feeder stream into Crater Lake at Maroon Bells in Colorado, and on the banks of Washakie Creek in the Winds. In Yellowstone, I heard it in every square foot I stepped in.

This is perhaps what makes Yellowstone so special. Unless the subject is geysers or wildlife, it’s difficult to take a good picture in Yellowstone. There aren’t the same kind of dramatic, photogenic mountains as the Tetons, and so landscape photos seem boring. They don’t capture the feel of the place. But that is exactly what Yellowstone is full of: feel. The whole massive park, even where it is chock-full of tourists and cars, speaks wilderness. After years of seeking summits and vistas and perfect sunrise light on the sculptural majesty of mountains, I’ve come to learn that what I’ve sought most isn’t necessarily visual. It’s a feel. It’s a sense of being allowed to inhabit a place. Of being allowed to haunt it.

Holly Lake, releasing itself to summer, in the Grand Tetons

The gentle Hayden Valley, full of feel, in Yellowstone. You just had to be there.

10. You drink hard liquor you come on strong

In Colorado I was prone to spells of drunken anger. Not, as I have written, anything too destructive, but pensive incoherent silences punctuated by peptic bitter commentaries that have ruined several afternoons. I had one last (hopefully) bout of this in Wyoming, on the Fourth of July. I could feel the crowds of the weekend all around in the Tetons, there were strong mosquitoes, our plans (and possibilities) were striking me as particularly uncertain, and it rained. I had been drinking beer, and at dinner I was banging around our picnic table with a palpable ill-will toward the disorganization of our stuff and our lives.

But then that was it. My anger cleared alongside the last of the wet spring weather, and I settled into a more accepting presence. I noticed at this time, as well, that I had really been connecting with ramblin’ songs, songs of travel and movement, of the monotony of constant change, of being both free and alone. Songs like the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’” or (humorously perhaps) Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” are fairly digestible versions I can recall enjoying, but I realized that I was connecting with a darker subgenre, and I was trying to understand what it was. I felt newly arrested by Del McCoury Band’s “On the Lonesome Wind,” could hardly bear Frightened Rabbit’s “Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” and, most of all, found myself, upon every play, in full-throated concert with The Old 97s’s “Won’t Be Home” (“I was born in the backseat of a mustang / On a cold night in the pouring rain / And the very first song that the radio sang / Was “I won’t be home no more”). Part of me, I know, was indulging a certain dark romance to rambling homelessness, but I knew it went even further than that. It’s taken me up until this writing to understand what it was, that these weren’t simply songs about constant movement and homelessness, but more, about oblivion.

11. I go downtown I see your face

Walking around Bozeman and Jackson, enjoying the respites of patio restaurant meals (all two that we had) and window shopping, were brief forays into a normalcy we hadn’t felt in a long time. Bozeman struck us as a place we could easily live in. Its youthful culinary culture and obvious proximity to extraordinary wilderness easily makes up for the cowboy chic affluence that has been transforming Montana over the past few decades. Jackson, while more of that affluent ilk, still felt unique and even possibly livable with, likewise, an energetic food scene that bespeaks a doable day-to-day life. Yet walking around both we noticed, bit by bit, that places were closed, not because of city ordinances or financial prudence, but directly because of COVID, staff coming down with it and operations abruptly stopping. After a certain threshold of frequency, we felt scared, the laser-printed closure signs hanging in darkened windows evoking a version of people being stolen away under the dark of an invisible force.

12. I’m gonna go to Slidell and look for my joy

The sun is starting to set and we press play. We’ve driven these roads for weeks, winding through forests and along creeks and meadows and canyons, and we are going to do nearly all of it again, in one good go, though we don’t know that yet. We plan to try for a spot at each camp we pass on our way back south. We’ll change the words a little bit, belting along with the radio “Gonna go to Pinedale and look for my joy,” bobbing our heads in the grit of the road and the grass and the sun. But we want one last night up north. We get to Bridge Bay and it’s a no-go. We get to Grant Village and it’s a no-go (mosquitoes biting my legs as I stand at the check-in window). We are stopped by an elk herd crossing the road, the sunlight pink now, wet feeling. We sing an almost perfect accompaniment to “Still I Long for Your Kiss.” We exit Yellowstone and do a quick check on Flagg Ranch on the parkway, which is, of course, full. We enter the Tetons, at this point simply a jagged outline against the darkest possible blue, everywhere else around us already gone indistinguishably to night. Colter Bay, completely full, Signal Mountain, absolutely full―we cut east and do the long drive to Gros Ventre, our surest bet, but not sure enough―completely full. We debate stealth camping off the side of the road (as a few camper vans are doing), but it doesn’t feel right. It’s almost midnight and we can still catch Dominoes in Jackson (we haven’t eaten since a breakfast burrito that morning in West Yellowstone). Fuck it, we do it. We sit in our car and devour spongy dough and gooey cheese with relish, watching the teenage employees in their tentative freedom and awkward romantic gestures beneath the sodium parking lot lights. My wife books a hotel in Pinedale. I take a caffeine pill, and we continue on, careening down out of the mountains (with the nearest miss of a deer I’ve ever had), through construction zones, hard banking turns, and thick darkness. We don’t see but rather feel the mountains come to an end, and we know then that we are a small thing in the middle of the night traveling a plain that, even on the brightest of days, extends beyond vision. We are exhausted, but not tired, or the other way around. The album is now long over and we are talking, about everything. About our friendships and the trajectory of the lives of those whom we care about. We talk about wilderness. We talk about disease. We talk about politics and how people behave. We talk about places, where we could live, how we could live. We are figuring it all out. And finally, we arrive. And there in front of our hotel door, munching on the landscaping, is an enormous bull moose.

13. All the way to Jackson I don’t think I’ll miss you much

Here is a list, in homage/contradistinction to the game ledgers of Theodore Roosevelt, of all the animals we saw in July: 2 marmots, 1 pika, 4 mule deer, 57 elk, 3 white pelicans, 5 sandhill cranes, 3 woodpeckers, 25 gray jays, 31 ravens, at least 2 Clark’s nutcrackers, 232 assorted waterfowl (ducks, grebes, coots, and others), 1 (very stressed out) grouse, 1 (particularly sun-blotting) osprey, 35 other birds of prey, 3 moose, 1 marten (OMG), 6 black bears, something like 3,145 bison, probably some rabbits and mice and chipmunks and squirrels, exactly 1 million mosquitoes. Apart from some of the mosquitoes and birds and the 1 marten (OMG), none of these animals did we see in the Winds. The Winds were, in fact, surprisingly devoid of wildlife, at least as far as we could see directly (otherwise plenty of, for instance, deer and elk scat). What they did have, in totally self-amusing contradiction to what I wrote earlier, was one tremendous forest.

I was not thinking too terribly much about Washakie Lake. The timing of our itinerary had us camping beyond it, and judging from the topo map the lake appeared to me like it would mostly serve as a cruisey stroll through a relatively flat basin and on toward more mind-occupying places, like the Lizard Head Plateau and the Cirque of the Towers. The morning of our second day we made fairly quick work of the climb from our camp at Washakie Creek to the beautiful and extremely windy Washakie Pass, passing through a fir forest that opened up into a lovely alpine meadow dotted with huge glacier-deposited boulders. Peering down from the pass into Washakie Basin for the first time, it was indeed picturesque, a squirreled away slice of mountain paradise stretching into subsidiary cirques between Washakie, Blair, and Poyson Peaks. We descended the northish aspect through a snowfield giving way to a talus field, and after that work had a late-morning snack tucked against some boulders on the shore of Macon Lake. It was leaving here, hopping low boulders across a labyrinth of streams, that I could start to see the trees on the shore of Washakie Lake. We descended further, and they began to surround us.

I had read a little bit about whitebark pine on some placards in Yellowstone; I knew they were struggling to survive and that they provided an important source of fat and protein for Clark’s nutcrackers and, of special interest, grizzly bears. I had looked for them a little bit in Yellowstone, but didn’t really know what I was looking for (I do think we camped beneath one at Fan Creek). I am ashamed that I didn’t know for sure, walking the incredible stands that line Washakie Lake, that they were in fact whitebark pine. I confirmed it later, but at the time all I knew was that the forest was magical. Most conifers grow in a familiar conical shape, but these trees branched like hardwoods in individually distinctive patterns, developing a far more shading canopy that also kept the forest relatively loose and open. We could stand under these pine trees in a way you can’t with other pines. And they were very old looking (the oldest documented whitebark is 1,270 years old). I love, love, love old trees. Hiking from the crappy, overgrown, dense alder stands and into the egregiously small protected parcel of old growth that surrounds, for instance, Goat Lake off the Mountain Loop Highway in the Cascades, is an exercise in extreme transition, moving from “weeds” to “immemorial sentinels of nature’s wisdom.” Gnarled bristelcone pine, gnarled pinyon pine, the great Douglas firs and western red cedars, Sitka spruce―such trees are the immediate presence of longtime itself, centuries reified. These trees along Washakie Lake were this exactly, individual expressions of an extremely slow process of maturation. Each one was a work of sculptural art, and together they comprised a forest of unimaginably deep haunting, the reassurance that my presence there, this project of this year, the entire scope of my life, was but a single heartbeat in the scope of theirs.

Which is not to say that they will be here forever―in fact, they are dying. I have purposely refrained from hyperlinks in these writings, but here is an extremely informative article in High Country News that describes their plight (and here you will see a photo of a dead stand in the very Esmeralda Basin I mentioned earlier). The whitebark pine’s challenges unfortunately encapsulate the nexus of some of our most pressing ecological issues. They are blighted by an invasive species, blister rust (a fungus), which was accidentally introduced in 1910. Our misguided fire protection regimes of the past century have allowed competing species (like subalpine firs), which would otherwise be routinely cleared out by non-catastrophic fires, to crowd- and shade-out the whitebark. And climate change has expanded the range of the parasitic mountain pine beetle into the higher elevations where whitebark have historically been protected (and thus never required to develop resistance)―recent outbreaks have decimated many populations.

Whitebarks are important. They are a rare species that thrives at timberline, and as such they help stabilize soils and watersheds, providing crucial resources and conditions for numerous other subalpine species. Below the trees we encountered in the Winds we would see heaps of discarded cone debris, no doubt the sign of the industrious Clark’s nuthatch and an inspiring image of nature’s bounty. And aside from their important actual role in these ecosystems, the whitebark embodied, for me, the mystical, age-old spirit of alpine America, what has become one of the most nourishing and important environments for my own living. In recent years several groups have petitioned and sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get the whitebark pine added to the Endangered Species List. The outcome of those efforts is, to me, one of the most insightful lessons about environmental protection and the health of this planet one could learn: scientifically, the USFWS agrees that they deserve such protection, but there simply isn’t enough money to include them at this time.

In my former life as a publisher, I worked on an edited collection of environmental writings called After Preservation, from which I had a primary takeaway: wilderness is a human construct. A wilderness does not know that it is a wilderness. One might an encounter an animal in a wild setting and feel that animal’s understanding of otherness, and maybe even humanness, but does it know that it is in a protected place, one with boundaries? Trying to watch an enormous black bear cross a busy road in Alaska’s Chugach mountains, in what is roughly a suburb of Anchorage, my conclusion was a definite “no.” We have invented the concept of wilderness for our own utility. One thinks being in a National Park might afford a pristine experience, but that isn’t entirely true: take, for instance, the “bear jams” in Yellowstone, traffic jams centered around bear sightings (and other wildlife)―that experience is possible because the bears have become habituated to the presence of cars. They are, in one way or another, actually on show. A similar slipperiness affects many of our conservationist practices as well. Throw your yogurt container in the recycling and feel good, then go Google “China scrap import ban” or “secondary materials markets” and try to follow where that container will, or will not, go. We live on a planet characterized by a balanced ecosystem, an astonishing diversity of life, and natural processes of biological and geological evolution that have taken millennia to articulate what we see before us today. But, in practicality, from our perspective and agency, these aspects (and the science that describes them) are not the primary ground of our relationship with our planet, though with our conservationist values we’d like to believe that they are. What is primary is economics.

Which means what is primary is indeterminate, in constant flux. I was bewildered talking with a volunteer at the visitor center in Blanding, UT by the complexity of issues and stakeholders at the heart of the fight for Bears Ears National Monument, which the Trump Administration reduced by 85% a few years ago. Nearly every Alaskan I met was or had for many years been in someway supported by the oil industry that has turned the North Slope into an industrial wasteland (Alaskan voters, in this recent election, just turned down a proposition to tax the oil industry more, no doubt a result of an extreme imbalance in campaign financing). Trails need to be cut, roads built, to give access to wilderness. Zoos imprison at the same time they educate. No doubt you’ll enjoy the irony that these very wilderness writings are predicated on a gas-guzzling roadtrip. These are just a few examples of how starkly human needs and human activity dictate not only our relationship to but the very status of wild places and, beyond that, environmental health.

This is a lesson that has, for all of my life, been very difficult to absorb, and the only answer I can offer ends up being an economic one, stolen from David Attenborough. Drilling for oil that will eventually go dry, logging old growth that will take centuries to recover, slashing and burning rainforests for what will be only marginally nutrient soils―these are the very definition of unsustainable practices, and not just environmentally unsustainable, economically unsustainable. When the Trump Administration greatly weakened the Endangered Species Act, when they opened up Grand Staircase-Escalante, Bears Ears, the Tongass National Forest, and, accelerated just this week, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they didn’t do it to build wind farms or plant lentils (or build a First Nations language school or even a playground). They did it for drilling, mining, and logging, the old-school, devastating, and incredibly unsustainable practices that we continue to support at our peril.

You know all of this. I do. Now I have some hope―we’ve just elected a new president, and many of his first-day plans are environmental in purpose, reversing Trump’s rollbacks. Listening to David Attenborough talk about the rewilding of Chernobyl fills my heart. And reading that High Country News piece on the whitebark, you’ll see that scientists have started to develop rust-resistant seedlings. Yet when I think back on walking through that incredible forest on the shores of Washakie lake, I’m forced into a feeling I had then that I couldn’t quite articulate at the time, a barely intelligible whisper that I spoke, in return, to that wild place: goodbye.

View a full set of photos from this leg here: https://www.amazon.com/photos/shared/Bw8Eap5lQHeeKCzt3bG-Pg.J082RxDTbjZ2rkLFKWBMBC

Colorado

I am unaccustomed to anger. The only real fight I ever got into was in the fifth or sixth grade, with a boy new to town who had been, for many weeks, repeatedly antagonizing me to fight him. I had no idea what offense I had committed and was a little scared. I tried as best as I could to avoid him, but one day he just showed up at my house with an entourage about a half dozen strong, and I was shamed, essentially, into coming out. Ironically (I believe this is the correct use of the word), I was pretty obsessed with martial arts at that time (I am, in fact, a red belt in Tang Soo Do, though I haven’t been able to swing a round kick higher than hip height since my teens). But I wasn’t interested in real violence. My fantasies were more Clark Kent in feel, involving circumstances (read: rescuing a girl) that necessitated a controlled expression of badass skills that my profound dweebiness otherwise belied. This fight was probably my one chance to set the record straight w/r/t that hidden badassness, but in the end it was extremely uneventful. He threw punches and kicks, and I dodged them, dancing around the empty corner lot between the townhomes that functioned as a defacto park in the neighborhood (in Glen Burnie, MD) where I grew up. I planted one or two blows and eventually got him into a hold up against a tree―then I let go and walked away. I remember the other kids jeering at me (“what, that’s it?”), but I was done―scared, and really just too emotionally overwhelmed to keep going. The whole thing couldn’t have been more than two or three minutes. It turned out to be some kind of ceremony for my opponent. He was Korean (they moved from Korea), I obviously had a Japanese name, and I think his intention was to have something like an Asian hazing, a test or show of might and skill that initiated him into this new community. The next time I saw him in the lunch line, he showed me, laughing, all the bruises I had raised on him, and we were pretty much chums from that day on.

That is the most violent encounter I have ever had, and the only thing remotely close to a traditional expression of anger (though I wasn’t angry at all). I can almost count the number of times I’ve ever raised my voice. I think friends would describe me as cheerful, laid back, diplomatic, even non-confrontational. It has rarely occurred to me that a problem might be someone else’s fault, much less their malicious intent. I have been aware of despotism and belligerence and even something like “evil,” but these have all been, to me, symptoms of some deeper pain, misdirections of trauma. For most of my life, I’ve considered myself a completely unangry person, and I’ve even thought this might be some sort of deficiency. But I have gotten older. I have lived in dense cities and through flabbergastingly stupid times. Maybe about fifteen years ago, I found myself unconsciously developing a complicated set of rules of conduct. It began on my commutes, how people should behave on trains and buses. Then, how they should act in the grocery store, and definitely on airplanes and driving in traffic. When I began bicycling to work, I very quickly bought a loud bell, and I developed a system of rings to express various degrees of disapproval (four bells from me is a bona fide “fuck you”). I have started, jokingly, to describe myself as an “extroverted misanthrope” (this may be dangerously close to “sociopath”). I laugh it off, but the misanthropy is real. I find people selfish, weak, ignorant, and superficial. Kids these days? They don’t know what the fuck they are doing. Our culture? Shambles. Politics, economy? Abusive, broken, delusional. I am becoming, nauseatingly quickly, a grumpy old man. I’m not yet forty.

That said, my anger feels different from what I imagine other people’s anger is like. When I see protests, I see anger united by cause. When I read or watch a story of vengeance (Once Upon a Time in the West springs immediately to mind as a great example, RIP Ennio Morricone), I see anger shaped into narrative. Even the “white resentment” that has fueled and of course continues to fuel conservative American politics is something that has texture, that has been stacked into a recognizable (if horrifyingly manipulated) shape. Compared to these, my anger feels wildly incoherent. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a lot of experience with it, haven’t learned to tragically fix it to some obsession. My anger is rhizomatic: it just kind of pops up in weird, fruiting bodies. I’ve gotten so angry about a fucked-up dinner that I’ve punched a wall. Just recently, I broke the lid of one of our bins in a fit of rage that it wouldn’t close. A small offense a passing stranger might make will cling for hours. And of course, I’m very angry about the pandemic, and more widely, that the life I have envisioned for myself, what I thought perfectly modest, feels every day more impossible to attain. These larger, abiding angers are especially worrisome. In my worst, angriest moments, my mood is sulfurous and diffuse. It feels like a literal poison. I clench up and try to ride it out like a hangover; it is a completely annihilating experience. That’s the terrible thing about anger: when it grabs a hold of you, you can’t see anything else but the blankness of its face. Hopes, memories, they are pressed flat by its weight, their meaningfulness made inert by anger’s severe polarity. Literally nothing else matters. Anger is the ultimate void. And all I can dream is that sadness, perhaps, will return me from it.

~

I would characterize this segment of the trip as blissed-out days in Colorado’s wonderful mountain towns punctuated by intense periods of rugged early season, high elevation weather. From our hotel in Durango we headed up the San Juan Scenic Byway to find a camp at Little Molas Lake, a free National Forest campground on a bench above Molas Pass, sitting at about 10,000 feet and staring at beautiful Snowden Peak. This was the beginning of a tour, specifically, of the San Juan Mountains, in far southwest Colorado. It’s long been a favorite area of ours, though prior to this trip we’ve only spent a few short weekends in it. Our general plan was to tour the scenic byway, eventually heading to Telluride, one of our favorite towns on earth. Prior to coronavirus, we planned on attending the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and its cancellation was one of the major coronavirus losses of our trip. But we kept Telluride as a destination and developed a San Juans itinerary around it.

The lovely Little Molas Lake beneath Snowden Peak

We were a little amazed to find Molas Pass and the campground snow free for our early June arrival, and we got optimistic for our travels through the Rocky Mountains. That optimism was quickly gutted. We enjoyed one warm, clear afternoon at Molas, and then a weather system blew in. It didn’t snow, but there was thunder, hail, and a lot of rain from early evening through the early afternoon of the following day. We squatted it out. I thought we had chosen a good tent spot, but water ended up pooling pretty substantially underneath us, our sleeping pads squishing around on the tent floor with the exact feel of an old school waterbed. When the rain abated for a few minutes, we pulled what we could out of the tent, made coffee, and spent most of the rest of the day sitting in our car watching movies beneath the continuous noise of hard rain, hail, or pine debris pelting the roof. I think it was about here that I started using the term “chaos packing”―having to break camp in gnarly conditions (rain, snow, wind, or bugs), throwing everything haphazardly in the car and sorting it out when things calmed down. We would do a lot of it on this leg. The storm eventually passed, to be replaced by 20+ mph winds for the remaining days we were there. We toughed it out as best as we could, and we did manage to hike up on the Colorado Trail to a ridge beneath Grand Turk for one lovely, if very blustery, afternoon.

When we left Molas we then headed north to Ouray, where we found a nice camp with good cover at the Amphitheater Campground that sits perched above town. The day we arrived it was in the 70s with full sun, and we enjoyed beers on the patio of a newly reopened beer garden. But soon enough we saw another front coming in, and by 6pm we were back at camp putting coats on against the newly falling snow. We ate a quick dinner and tucked ourselves in for a long night of tossing and turning. The snow was very wet and heavy, and all night we had to keep knocking it forcefully from the tent walls to prevent the poles from collapsing. When we emerged in the morning there were about six inches on the ground. I used our winshield scraper to clear some space from the picnic table, made some coffee, and watched the clouds tease apart against the mountain peaks, revealing the other side of the front, clean and crisp blue skies. The snow melted insanely fast, and by early afternoon we were able to hike around the contour of the amphitheater, dodging snow bombs from high tree limbs as the sunshine penetrated the forest.

It was a heavy night.
Hiking around the amphitheater later that day

We stayed in Ouray for two nights, then drove north, out of the mountains and onto the high desert plateau near Ridgway, where we hooked west/southwest toward Placerville, where we then picked up highway 145 heading east straight toward the canyon and headwall of beautiful Telluride. If you follow 145 south where it veers off right before town, you’ll be on the western arm of the San Juan Scenic Byway (the eastern arm runs from Durango to Ridgway), finding numerous camps as you head to Lizard Head Pass. And so that’s what we did, finding a wonderful site in an aspen stand at Sunshine Campground, where we met my favorite campground host so far (and probably of all time), the acerbic but motherly Barb. We stayed for five nights at Sunshine. Most days we would go into Telluride, and most nights we would have dinner and drinks on the knoll above our camp with perfectly beautiful views of Sunshine Peak and Mount Wilson. We did one hike, from Lizard Head Pass, heading up to the Wilson Meadows and the backside of unique looking Lizard Head Mountain (where we would get chased down by yet another thunderstorm)―but most days we were in town.

Ouray (from its park), about three hours before it started to snow
The peculiar Lizard Head Mountain, seen from the Wilson Meadows. That thunderstorm over it nearly caught us.

Telluride is wonderful. In college, when I would roadtrip through the West on summer breaks, I always made a point of stopping there, and when we lived in Denver we would go there at least annually (once for a snowy but fantastic rush-seating attendance of the Telluride Film Festival (we saw a great interview and music video screening (and preview of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) with Michel Gondry). We’ve been through several ski towns on this trip―Telluride, Aspen, Steamboat Springs, and (later) Jackson―and the affluence of them has been bothering me to an unexpected degree. Coming into one, you’ll likely pass enormous mountainside properties that, seemingly vacant for the summer, feel like incredible wastes of resources, fire- and mudslide-prone trophies of conspicuous consumption (or worse, “investments”). To see hundreds of them makes you feel sick. And in town there’s the packaging of rugged Western culture for a feebler consumer class: often gaudy or otherwise mediocre Western art, jewelry, “masculinity” stores (high-end fishing shops, knife shops, both fashionable (Filson) and technical (Arcteryx) outdoor clothing), shmancy restaurants with cowboy flare (Elk Bolognese, for example), and hallucinations of log cabin life in yet more feasts of real-estate porn, this time plastered in the windows of realty office after realty office. Towns were just opening up from coronavirus closures (Colorado on the A-game, free masks and hand sanitizer, service staff all over social distancing protocols (also lots of masked up statues of bears, elk, etc)―a far cry from the barely visible recognition of the pandemic in Utah), and each differed by degrees in terms of population, but all of them had a core of that affluent class, presumably staying at their ski property for the summer, poking around town, eating, shopping, and generally, I assume, trying to enjoy something away from the pandemic. If you’ll allow me to just go ahead and cement this specific misanthropy: many seemed perfectly miserable―bored, irritated with each other, distracted-by-phones, posturing (two words: cowboy hats), and/or peptic. The sense of ignorant aloofness, of a privileged sanctuary away from the dying world, sweetened this admixture yet more. Aspen was definitely the worst.

But Telluride, while not completely free from these criticisms, remains wonderful. Definitely rich people with ski properties (and a bewildering amount of teenagers, like, almost dystopian amounts), but Telluride retains its crunchy Colorado mountain town living-the-good-life-as-a-dirtbag feel (see in this category, also: Durango, Ouray, Nederland). It is also insanely beautiful, a U-shaped valley terminating at a picture-perfect headwall with picture-perfect waterfall. And the year-round locals are downright nice: chatty, carefree, but sharp-witted and knowledgeable. In Utah, a Telluride couple, hiking a few minutes behind us in Dark Canyon, followed our mudprints and caught up with us at our car, chatting with us for a long time (we were going to try to meet them in Telluride but got cold coronavirus feet about it). A server we had, originally from New Orleans, told us a remarkable story about his relocation there after Katrina (can you believe living through Katrina and ending up in Telluride?). Everything’s “brother-this” and “brother-that” and “no worries” and “this weather, right?” and you just find yourself smiling all the time. We’ve lived in two pretty antisocial, Nordic-culture cities (Minneapolis and Seattle), so friendliness is generally something we glom onto, but Colorado takes the cake, especially Telluride. And then there’s Town Park, the greatest city park in America. It “finishes” Telluride, as it were, right at the end of town, tucked against that headwall. First, you can camp there (the campground was closed up until the day we left; hence Sunshine). They have a great pool, coin showers, playfields, bandshell, a sporty enough creek to tube/SUP/swim, skate park, and, and, tennis courts, reservable, for free. We got into a routine of getting to Town Park in the morning, playing tennis, reserving a court time for the next day (my wife, always, so generous with these sorts of logistics), showering, having lunch (either at a restaurant (we are still only eating outside) or our own), and then spending a few hours on the free Town Park wifi (cell service remained poor) to Zoom and work on future logistics (a Maroon Bells backpack (again my wife for the win on scoring permits), AirBnB on the front range, rental with friends in Michigan, the Wyoming and Montana leg, Denali and Alaska travel/coronavirus stuff) while a fly-fishing class or couple-with-slackline or endless dogs-wearing-bandannas did their thing around us (okay another parenthesis: the showers + internet combo cannot be stressed enough―just enough of these two (at places like Telluride or some National Park campgrounds) has made it possible for us to camp most of the time and still feel human and able to take care of the constant planning this improvised/fucked-up-from-coronavirus leg has required). And it was god damn sunny for most of it.

Telluride, just opening up (in a few days, this side of the street would be fenced off and populated with outdoor seating and sanitation kiosks for all the restaurants); June is pride month, I’ll remind you, hence the flags
Love this! My people!
My favorite tennis court on earth, in Town Park

Yet, I got mad. One afternoon in particular, we were back at camp, and I got drunk on rosé and sat in the hammock looking at the mountains, stewing on the dark void of my anger (yes, rosé). I have been more and more prone to grumpiness on these recent legs, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. I was almost desperate to get to the mountains. I consider the mountains my spirit place. We’ve been seeing a lot of them, ones I’ve wanted to see for a long time. We’ve been among marmots, in summer snowfields, spring flowers, blasting our legs on steep vertical and looking constantly up―it’s everything I wanted. But sitting in Telluride made palpable two great losses from the coronavirus. First, we learned that Wonder Lake in Denali would not open for the season. Wonder Lake sits at the end of Denali’s 90-mile park road, and it has anchored our forthcoming trip there; it was the “holy place” where we were going to connect with the tundra, socialize with other hikers, and where I would begin my three-week trip back to the park entrance. The rest of our itinerary, for the most part, has remained intact (more on that later), but the loss of Wonder Lake both created new complications/planning and ruined an emotional excitement we’ve had about that trip. Second was the accumulating anguish of sitting day after day in Town Park, picturing what it would have been like during the bluegrass festival. It was already so nice there, but then to think to be there for a music festival, one we’ve wanted to go to for nearly two decades? I could hear the mandolin light and fast in my mind, smell the fogs of OG Kush, playact all the conversations we were supposed to have (anyone, for instance, who recognized my Station Inn Nashville shirt). We were supposed to have that specific joy. In both cases, it wasn’t just the loss, but the immense imaginational volume I had built up prior to it. For months I’ve pictured both the bluegrass festival and Wonder Lake with increasingly sophisticated construction, long dreams lying in our tent or driving a highway. I’ve been excited about a lot of things on our trip, and many, many of them have happened with great presence, surprise, and satisfaction (and no doubt, many other people have way more to be angry about with COVID), but both of these were crucial “homecomings” for us. I was homesick for them. And it made me mad.

Sunshine Peak and Mount Wilson at sunset, viewed from the knoll just above our camp

~

After Telluride, we left the San Juans and made our way to the Maroon Bells (in the White River National Forest, the Elk Mountains, near Aspen; or just Google a picture of “Colorado” and that’s them) via the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, dropping down out of the mountains and onto the plateau for a single night canyon-side. It felt strange but reassuring to be back in high desert environments, walking shrub forests of juniper, pinyon pine, and gambel oak as we had done nearly all throughout Utah. The canyon itself is toweringly steep and narrow, and the light that does catch the rapids of the Gunnison River, in its only occasionally viewable presence below, glints with a special, secretive luminescence. Lingering wildfire smoke gave the sunset at Sunset Point (yup) a heady, frothy volume. Later, following our dinner in camp, I would take a drunken hike through head-high stands of oak, and down to the rim, where I had the canyon to myself in the last light (protip: night hikes from busy camps almost always pay off in main-feature solitude (see: the amphitheater trail in Signal Mountain campground in the Grand Tetons)).

A wildfire haze at sunset at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Back into the mountains the next day, north toward Carbondale over McClure Pass, then east on a zippy highway full of BMWs and Audis on the way into Aspen. Here’s another piece of camp advice: never trust a “Campground Full” sign. Couple this with friendliness toward rangers/concessionaires, and you’ve got at least a 50/50 chance of finding something overlooked or unnecessarily sequestered. And so we got a perfectly lovely site at Silver Queen just below Maroon Lake, where we prepped our packs and made friends with a retiree from Florida and a friendly young couple from Atlanta with whom we ended up drinking far too much bourbon by propane lamp and social distance. The next morning we were at Maroon Lake lickety split, taking the standard-issue photos of the Bells―beautiful in early season snow clad―then making our way a fairly easy three miles up to Crater Lake (not that Crater Lake) for a two-night basecamp. There is a popular and amazing looking loop, the so-called Four Pass Loop, but it was still pretty early with a lot of snow at the passes, so we opted instead for a more relaxed itinerary of paddling around the lake (I brought the packraft up) for one day and up to Buckskin Pass (one of the four passes) for another. It felt great to be backpacking, and while Crater Lake saw numerous day visitors there was still plenty of space to have quiet. We paddled all that first afternoon, lounging around the lakeshore. By dinner we were completely alone (not even other backpackers, as far as we could tell), eating on the lakeshore, when suddenly a silver fox appeared in the knee-high vegetation. I’ve seen a lot of animals, even other foxes, but something about this one, with her lingering winter coat glittery in the late light, felt especially fantastic, fairytale, perfect. She stared us down, pranced a few paces away, stared again, and so on.

Maroon Bells, a Colorado classic
The Bells, viewed from the middle of Crater Lake. Yes those sandals are homemade
A nice pan of Crater Lake with the Bells on the right

The next day, hiking to Buckskin Pass, was what felt like our first real entrance into alpine environments, even though we’d been in Colorado for weeks by this point. Glacier Lilies sprung from the sodden upper soils that were criss-crossed with braided snowmelt creeks, one’s breath felt clean in the air, pikas chirped, and marmots whistled. The pass itself retained a substantial, heavily corniced snowfield, but there was an obvious talus route to its edge, and we got atop the pass without major ado. It was absolutely magnificent, one of the grandest viewpoints I’ve ever enjoyed, the Bells on one side, the massive scooped face of Snowmass defining the other. We sat there for awhile, half a dozen marmots browsing casually all around us. We had some snacks, I took a ton of pictures, and we watched two people approach steadily from Snowmass Lake. In a way, we waited for them. It was a father and son from Minnesota. The son had just graduated from highschool and was off to UMN, where I had done my MFA, to study engineering. The father was himself an engineer, in ceramics, for 3M (think: sandpaper). We talked for nearly 45 minutes, about coronavirus, the college experience, Minneapolis, navigating careers, and a great deal about the West. Many, many times on the trail we’ve met parent/child duos, and every time we’ve been enamored with the experience they were trying to give to each other (sometimes the parent to child, sometimes child to parent (thinking here of the daughter/father we helped get into Peak-a-boo canyon, the father looking pretty beat up afterward at the trailhead where we sat in the car waiting out 40mph winds, him just slogging through them like some kind of self-flagellation), lamenting that our own parents weren’t outdoorsy when we were children, and that we didn’t have children to subject to our outdoor interests. And it has remained odd to connect so swiftly with strangers in remote locations; indeed, there is a bit of a formula, the more miles or vertical feet from a trailhead, the more minutes your conversation will be. When I think about my solo trip in Alaska, in very remote locations, I think often about the possibility of running into other people, and what I will say.

Views of the valley on the hike up to Buckskin Pass
Glacier Lilies festooning the upper meadows on the way to Buckskin Pass
Marmot at Buckskin Pass
A pan of Buckskin Pass, Bells on the left and, in the distance on the right, Snowmass Peak. Can you spot my wife on the pass? She’s wearing a black coat.

~

After a nice breakfast after the Bells in Aspen, driving over Independence Pass and north toward Frisco and I-70, I tried very hard to commit to my memory the particular rain that had just started falling: big, gloopy drops that hit our windshield percussively, popping like the little paper bundles of gunpowder that have a different name depending on where you grew up (from Wikipedia: “Bang snaps (also known as Devil Bangers, Lil’ Splodeys, Throwdowns, snap-its, poppers, whack-pops, poppies, pop-its, snappers, Snap Dragons, whip’n pops, Pop Pop Snappers, whipper snappers, fun snaps, party snaps, pop pops, whiz-bangers, cherry poppers, pop rocks, snap’n pops or bangers. . . .”). As we hit Frisco and I-70, the rain grew fine, and our climb to the Eisenhower tunnel was a bituminously greasy, slick-misted affair that had me pretty white-knuckled around the construction and trucks (it was also the first time I’d driven on an interstate since our first day in Utah (which was, itself, only a five minute stretch)). I don’t know what it was, but for some reason I started a personal project of trying to remember every rainfall. This one was unfun, but memorable nonetheless. It turned the I-70 corridor, something I’ve driven numerous times and was very eager to drive again (it having become a notable landmark in the weathered map of my personal mythology), into a confusing replica of the I-90 corridor over Snoqualmie Pass in Washington, which is so often wet with rain, which itself is something I’ve driven numerous times though have yet to have so distinctly mythologized. I couldn’t tell if the two mountain interstates were being married in an illuminating union―something about how home is everywhere―or if the experience of the drive that I wanted to have was simply being disallowed, not completely unlike Wonder Lake or the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

We were heading to the Front Range, specifically to Lafayette, outside of Boulder (earlier in our trip we’d had a wonderful lunch in a busy park in Lafayette, LA (birthplace of Zydeco); in Memphis, we went to a blues jam at Lafayettes in Cooper-Union), where a good friend of ours lives and runs an apothecary. We have two very good, longtime friends in Colorado who moved out there around the same time we did, right after college, but stayed. Initially we had been making plans to rent a house in the mountains with them and their families, along with a third mutual friend from Indiana and his family (he was supposed to do the Canyonlands trip with us). Coronavirus messed all of that up, no one comfortable making plans to share a space with so much in upheaval. By the time we got to Colorado, we were all feeling better about seeing each other, but it was too late to organize a rental. So my wife and I get one for ourselves, nearby, for six nights. It was the fastest six nights I’ve ever lived. We binge watched The Watchmen (free from HBO for that week in response to Trump’s Tulsa rally), ran numerous errands (finally fixing a broken arm on our roofbox; going into an REI for the first time; endless groceries), cooked and dehydrated several weeks of backpacking food, and talked, for hours, late into afternoons and even later into evenings, with our longlost friends. It was late June, and this was the first time we’d seen someone we know, in person, since February. It wasn’t that it felt strange, or good, to reconnect, but that it felt so natural. Overwhelmingly natural, if such a characteristic exists. People whom you know really well, whom you love, distance with them can often feel almost amusingly superficial: a little more gray hair, children more talkative, different car, different diet maybe, but it all feels like costuming. The core remains, the person immovable in history. This maybe bespeaks our friends’ own natural sociality, but I still found it remarkable. We just talked, no anxiety (I’ve had a hard time managing my impulse to just prattle on in Zooms and phone calls, as in these writings, about our travels), no searching silences, just a hungry, relishing conversation. Same person, different time.

And yet, of course, we all change. Or we all advance. Our friend S. is my wife’s friend from childhood. She is tall and noticeably beautiful, and she talks with a rapid angularity, constantly pivoting to make room for what you have to say (a skill that suits motherhood and its endless interruptions really well). She had a long career as a technical writer that she left several years ago. She is a trained yoga instructor but has mostly done work for her children’s school (marketing and other community engagements) since her career shift. Her husband is a healthcare worker and avid photographer. He is at high risk for coronavirus exposure, and so we did not see him (our time with S. was spent outside, in masks, personal bowls of popcorn). We talked about change. The Front Range (Denver, Boulder, etc) has grown quickly since we were there, and traffic, real estate, and culture have gotten more crowded, harder to do. Its such a widespread urban story, and its hard to untangle it from our own aging and decreasing tolerance for high-paced life, but I think it’s pretty demonstrably true that cities have gotten more difficult to live in. We talked about the hidden forces of affluence, a disgust for conspicuous consumption, and the mixed up feelings of not fitting into a place you’ve lived in for so long, that has changed beneath you. And the mixed-up feelings of your own change: that S., for instance, often forgets how committed to yoga she once was (for my part, I once played the drums, I once, it seems, wrote poems). On this trip, I’m often very far from a mirror, so when I catch sight of myself in the rare one I encounter, I’m a bit startled. That’s sort of what S. sounded like, in our conversation, startled by seeing herself in those quick, passing glances. And yet happy, or on the other side of worry, as she has always struck me.

Our friend F. moves and talks like fabric: fluid, relaxed, with an earthy fibrousness that gives her a bit of tooth. She laughs in a way that makes you feel like what you said is truly funny. She is an herbalist and owns a local body and wellness store, an apothecary of plant- and mineral-based remedies. Some of her products have become my absolute favorite: her carrot and rose face cream, her coriander under arm spray, her mint and frankincense tooth powder, and her neroli hydrosol. We spent an afternoon crawdad fishing with her family (i.e. we sat in camping chairs drinking beers while her children played around in the creek), and then they hosted us for dinner (mostly in their backyard). We talked a lot about running a small business, about growth, risk, and work-life balance, and of course about coronavirus and the small business relief funds (which she received). Her husband left his longtime career as an electrician and telecommunications technician and has just finished school for computer programming. We talked a lot about trying to enter tech in middle age. We talked about changing Colorado, too, and we talked, definitely, about our travels, about music and our disappointment with the canceled Telluride Bluegrass Festival (they themselves had plans to attend Rockygrass, a sister festival in Lyons). As with S. there was this sense of laying claim to the good things you can lay claim to in the midst of change, growing challenges, an ever more expensive cost of living. As with S. it was about the incremental process of community: helping build it, watching it shift, and adjusting oneself. During the conversation it was so apparent to me, for better or worse, that community has become very abstract to my wife and I―it’s something we merely observe. But right then, with F. and her husband, that was our community. We talked and talked, drank whisky, talked more, until it was two in the morning, a time of day I hadn’t touched (apart from tent-induced insomnia) since Mardi Gras. The quiet neighborhood on our walk home, the night, the black air, swam all around us―it felt like you could see, for a brief moment, whatever it is that has been watching you this whole time.

View a full set of photos from this leg here: https://www.amazon.com/photos/shared/qqYWrlzBSmyNpZKameeCEw.SuM9UaH0TC-jqSgfbPd_oo

―Bozeman, MT, July 13, 2020

Southern Utah

All roads come with some worry. Or maybe it’s that worry is a kind of road. Traveling interstate highways at fast speeds has seized me with worries about catastrophic accidents. Two-lane country roads in conservative Southern states had me anxious about having plates from a northern state. In the Mojave desert, we sailed up and down tight hills on 55mph roads that rapidly toggled visibility, topping out with trampolining momentum and bottoming out hard in washes. In large cities I worry about traffic and directions. On dark nights, I worry about falling asleep. I worry about hitting deer, cattle, and construction workers. I worry about getting pulled over. I worry about trucks and RVs and sports cars and motorcycles. I worry incessantly that I’ll have to pee and won’t be able to. Most of all, on this trip, I’ve worried about our roofbox and the load rating of our sunroof, that the box will come flying off, or that our roof will collapse at highway speeds.

But in southern Utah, the vast networks of unpaved roads have brought a whole new league of worry. For most of my life, I’ve delighted in dirt roads. In Washington State, I would fly down forest service roads to trailheads and camps, blasting music, feeling wild. But now that we are living out of our car, I’ve become anxious. Part of it was the recommendation from a service technician in Metairie, Louisiana―probably early―that we replace our tires. Part of it is having irreparably shredded a tire on an invisible piece of debris driving the otherwise perfectly nice Dosewallips Road on the eastern side of the Olympic peninsula. Part of it is the fact that nearly a third of the information on the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument website―which I’d spent a fair amount of time on planning this leg―is devoted to the kinds of vehicles and tires you need to drive their roads. Whatever the reasons, we came into Utah, where dirt roads are a fact of life, with worry on my mind about our car. Those worries have met a diversity of road conditions. House Rock Valley Road, which skirts the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, has ruts that get to be 18 inches deep. Cottonwood Canyon Road, which traverses a massive section of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, is full of sharp rocks and gravel, especially on its hill climbs. Hole-in-the-Rock Road, which travels from the town of Escalante through slot-canyon country toward Glen Canyon, is teeth-rattlingly washboarded for at least 40 miles (probably more―that’s just the section we drove). Elk Ridge Road, which travels the eastern lip of Dark Canyon in Bears Ears National Monument and the Manti-La Sal National Forest, is so remote it feels like it would take days to get help if you needed it. The Moki Dugway, which we just drove today (of this first draft), offers 1,200 feet of 11% grade switchbacks on loose gravel for vertiginous, unrailed views of the Valley of the Gods below. I (or my wife) have gripped the steering wheel hard for these roads, driven slowly, dodging potholes, rocks, logs, ruts, upheavals, streams, and cattle (we actually drove, literally, through a cattle drive, complete with shirt-tucked cow herders chatting casually atop their horses in the clean air to the side of the chaos). Camping off these roads, I’d check our tires every morning, the distance into town a number I’d hold in my head. Worry has been with me ever since we got back on the road, but it hasn’t been the kind of worry I thought I was going to have.

~

I thought I was going to be worrying about coronavirus, but in Utah, the pandemic has had less presence. Many businesses remain closed, but really, there aren’t very many businesses to begin with. Our sense of “the social” has been watching a truck-trailer drive some other dirt road on the other side of the valley we are in, or hearing the whine of OHV’s on the other side of some butte, or, most social of all, chatting with the occasional hiker on a trail. There is so much wide-open and freely accessible terrain―and the culture is definitely one of self-sufficiency and spreading out―that distancing is pretty built in. The exceptions have been the few towns that service these remote lands, which on weekends we’ve seen jammed with people, milling around in parking lots or waiting in burger joint lines, and at frontcountry trailheads in some of the just-reopened National Parks, which have also been jammed, especially on weekends. In indoor settings, I’d estimate 20% of people wear masks; outside, hardly anyone at all does. We’ve been distressed, almost reflexively, to see crowds, and it has kept a pressure on us to really limit our interactions and really live, with everything we have, out of our car.

We left Yucca Valley on May 11th. Initially we had plans to leave April 30th and spend our May 1, 10-year wedding anniversary in Big Sur. Two days before we were supposed to leave the county extended the closure of the area, and the itinerary we had rebooked (after it was canceled from the first closure) was lost. So we extended our stay in Yucca for ten days and celebrated our anniversary with an elaborate home cooked meal (a “Provence Picnic” at the heart of which was actually the famed Ligurian focaccia), a bottle of mescal, and a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape (one of of our go-to “treat” wines). On the remaining days of our extension we planned the ever-living shit out of southern Utah, 20 browser tabs of BLM, National Monument, National Park, National Forest, Outdoor Project, and tourism websites open at a time. Here is our driving, camping, hiking, and backpacking itinerary of Utah in list form:

1. Two nights at a road camp near Oak Grove in the Pine Mountains outside of St. George, hiking the Highline Trail there.

2. Drive through Zion National Park (just reopened the day we did it) and HWY 9 Scenic Drive, down through Kanab and toward the Arizona border.

3. Then two nights at the Stateline Campground (on House-Rock-Valley Road; terminus of the Arizona Trail), hiking Coyote Buttes South in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument.

4. Drive back west and through Kanab, then up through Bryce Canyon National Park and the scenic drive there (opened the day before we did it), over the pass on Scenic Byway 12, and down toward Cannonville.

5. Two nights off of Cottonwood Canyon Road in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, scrambling around the buttes and hoodoos with views onto Big Dry Valley and Kodachrome Basin.

6. Continue on Scenic Byway 12 through the town of Escalante and up onto New Home Bench in the Phipps-Death Hollow ISA WSA (astonishingly beautiful drive, perhaps the the prettiest drive we’ve ever done), down into the town of Boulder, then down the Burr Trail Road.

7. Two nights at GSENM/BLM Campground Deer Creek (first wet camp since Oak Grove, first showers (bag/solar) since we left California), exploring a little bit up Deer Creek.

8. Back to Escalante and then down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, hiking the Peek-a-Boo/Spooky Slot Canyons loop, then onto the Red Well trailhead for Coyote Gulch. Camp at the TH (after waiting out 40+ mph winds, drinking cold beers in the car and watching the sunset).

9. Two-night backpack of Coyote Gulch (thinking about all the people we would have loved to bring along on it (some nieces especially)), about a 25mi out-and-back, making it almost to the Escalante River (shy by about 1000 feet, it turns out).

10. Super fun drive out of Hole-in-the-Rock (wife sailing over the washboard; drinking roadies still cold from the cooler; forgetting about car worries), then back north through Boulder, camping one night in higher elevation National Forest camp (off FR 165 in the Dixie National Forest), enjoying the Ponderosa pines, cooler temps, and lack of bugs.

11. Continue north on Scenic Byway 12 higher into the mountains, camping again in Dixie NF at Oak Creek Campground for another night, driving down into the town of Torrey for groceries/internet/phone calls (second bag/solar showers).

12. Then up to to Capitol Reef National Park (weekend; frontcountry too busy!), doing a one-night backpack hiking east down Pleasant Creek (saw only one other party in that much more remote area, cool kids from SLC) where we camped in a wash at the mouth of a surprise slot canyon near the park boundary (when you start to see a lot of footprints, it’s sometimes worth following them).

13. Pack out of Pleasant Creek, and, now on HWY 24, head east (through remote moonscapes) then south (hooking up with SR 95) toward Hite in a sliver of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (parade of Memorial Day weekend boaters on the road in the opposite direction).

14. Two nights at Hite Campground in the GCNRA (on Memorial Day; had the 40+ site camp nearly to ourselves; test run of a fully loaded packraft (for Alaska) on the Colorado River; first actual plumbing showers―took three).

15. Continue on SR 95 following lovely Fry Canyon into Blanding (first liquor store since California) and then Monticello; drove into Manti-La Sal National Forest and onto Elk Ridge Road, camping one night in the pretty meadows of the ridge.

16. Then a two-night backpack down into Dark Canyon, hiking to Scorub Canyon/Horse Pasture from The Notch (very remote, saw only one other party in the canyon over the two days). Hiked up into a large alcove and found Puebloan (I think) ruins.

17. Drive back to Blanding and Monticello and up toward the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park through the Indian Creek unit of Bears Ears National Monument, camping one night at BLM camp Hamburger Rocks (camps tucked up against cool patty-like formations; wicked thunderstorm blew through and we had to keep our backs up against the tent wall for about an hour).

18. One-night backpack (planned two nights, ended up just hiking out second night) in Needles, camping at Devil’s Pocket (beautiful sunset over a lovely hidden meadow), doing a roughly 17mi loop around Chesler Park and up Big Spring Canyon, over continuous playgrounds of slickrock formations and variously sized canyons with some small slot sections; 95+ degrees and full water carry (35lb packs) had us zapped.

19. Hiking out we met some other hikers who told us about some potholes on Indian Creek just past Hamburger Rocks; found them and delighted in a refreshing swim, jumping 12 foot overhangs into the deep swimming hole; beautiful dispersed camp nearby on the lip of a small drainage overlooking the lower creek valley.

20. Back to Blanding (maybe we should we live there), charmed by (now open) information center staff person who suggested the Valley of the Gods; drove there and stopped in Bluff for Navajo Tacos (first restaurant meal in two months); got to Valley of the Gods, skirted it, then went up the Moki Dugway; made a bad choice to keep heading north to hookup with 95 again, an unplanned two-hour detour on what was supposed to be a straight-drive day to Durango, CO (sorry again to my wife).

21. Arrive into a just reopened Durango for hotel showers and awesome Himalayan food takeout (The Silence of the Lambs just starting on HBO―weird choice, maybe, but so good!)

Most of that time we had no cell or internet service, and coming back online (especially in Blanding) was, as it was when the coronavirus shutdowns were escalating in March, unnerving. There is nothing I can write that is adequate to the outrage of this moment, the murder of George Floyd, especially, but also as a necessary recognition of the ongoing violence against the black community and the shameful continuity of historic, systemic, and institutionalized racism. My wife and I, like many, have had long conversations in our camps about the pieces that are needed, police reform, criminal justice reform, more just economic initiatives, and, especially, more just educational systems and family and community resources. These are recapitulations of conversations we’ve had for years, having lived so long near imperiled black communities in Chicago, and when I was in academic publishing there, I grew somewhat close to the ideas of sociologist Loic Wacquant, who has argued that many blighted urban communities (“ghettos”) are inherently punitive and carceral states, one’s that, as he argues, produce race, the stigmatized marks of race―in a word, that police violence against black men is part of a horrific racist cycle that is woefully, deeply entangled in our national culture. His sophisticated but sensible theories, and adjacent research on things like early childhood education, economic justice, and proper community investment, help outline the complexity of the problems that need solving. In my former life, I did work that at least contributed to seeing some of these problems, and my wife did work that built and optimized programs meant to address some of them.

On this sabbatical, we are taking a break from that work, and now, that feels, frankly, wrong. Seeing images of the protests―seas of people wearing pandemic masks―has been powerful. The combined moment (protest and pandemic) is extraordinary and radical, of the complexity and fluidity and force that precisely describes, it feels, our late history. Seeing these images in the parking lot of a grocery store in rural Utah feels insane. We anticipated that this year was going to be intense―for lack of a better word―but it has still surprised us with its intensity. We were hoping our trip would put us in touch with a real America, but right now we just feel far away from it, even as we are nearly in its dead center. We feel that terrible word we’ve been trying to size up: estranged.

So I search to argue in the form of my above numbered itinerary, our recreation, that some other America does exist, is ongoing. It’s summer now. Families are out doing what they can. Right now, at the little alpine lake in the San Juan Mountains where I’m writing this (next draft :)), folks are walking their dogs and blowing up inflatable kayaks, casting for Colorado River Cutthroat all along the lakeshore. It’s perfectly idyllic. And in Utah we met, day after day, the most beautiful panoramas, the most fascinating geological presences. The swirls and buttes and hoodoos and perfect red sands of Coyote Buttes evinced an epic sculpture gallery architecturally elaborated with hidden platforms and walls and catwalks. The tight and insanely fluid curves of slot canyons are the earth in its most precise and elegant directives, a kind of pure touch (like walking the curve of a ceramic bowl) of refined geometry, their occasional chambers feeling like sudden, illuminated secrets. The alcoves of Coyote Gulch, and the immaculate echoes they throw back, feel like material manifestations of time itself, the imprint of dreaming millennia of flowing water. And the Needles are so dense it boggles the mind: land, place, and direction are all in such upheaval one becomes convinced of an alternate universe of design, an entirely different visual order. America is large and still teems with surprising beauty.

But my sense, with all this beauty, is that it stands apart. It is of itself and not for anyone. These are also very hostile places. The sun and wind were nearly unrelenting. Fleas, mosquitoes, and biting flies found us just about everywhere. Water was extraordinarily scarce. Routes were poorly marked, if at all (should we walk in the creek, up the deep sand hill, or bushwack the thick brush?). It is rugged, and we had to live and move ruggedly to get through it. Our parents had asked us if we were anxious traveling with coronavirus, and we had to be honest that we were more anxious about water sources and keeping ourselves and our gear reasonably clean. For days the best we could do was wash our faces, arm pits, and groins from water bottles. Sand blew constantly into our tents and on our bedding, clogging our zippers and stinging our eyes. The upside is that we were self-sufficient, could stay mostly clear of crowds, spend little time in indoor places, and keep our impact extremely low.

I’ve been trying to understand how whatever skills or knowledge or insights we’ve gained from these experiences might apply to the larger social crises the world is in. I think we’ve been, in a purposeful way, engaging some Rousseauian idea of a self-sufficient American, hearty independence in wild environments. These ideas are inherent to the American West, and for myself, I’ve cherished them as means to an interaction with nature that has always, since my childhood, given me something (and something to take into the social world) that nothing else can. But right now I don’t know what that thing is. Which is not to say giving up on it is any better. I have urges to join protests, get back online, start being part of other people and their projects again―but I have too many questions, too many suspicions, about how it all works right now. Part of it, absolutely, is mass and social media, and one thing I’m more certain of is that whatever form my life takes after our travels, its mediatized elements will be dramatically altered. I don’t know if that’s helpful, and I don’t know how to stay engaged in the discourses and work we need to bring our society to the place it should be (the place it is criminal, at this point in history, not to be), but I have to believe there is a way that doesn’t constantly, instantly, vertiginously leverage those discourses toward commercial or social gain (this being, primarily, my sickness with media). What can I find in nature that is worthwhile to bring back to our togetherness, our estranged togetherness? We’ve made it to the mountains. I still hope I can find out.

View a full set of photos from this leg here: https://www.amazon.com/photos/shared/8URZ_YrpQ9uiDzTh-Njtmg.gIld3JPAfbFZ1vMBBB-J1c

­—Little Molas Lake, San Juan Mountains, CO, June 7, 2020

Quarantine

1. I’m extremely bored.

2. No I’m not bored. I’m restless. We’ve been sheltering-in-place for a month. During this period we’ve left the house eight times: 1. a grocery run; 2. drive to a small bodega at the end of our neighborhood; 3. drop our car at the mechanic (taxi home; snowing/raining); 4. walk around the neighborhood; 5. pick up our car at the mechanic (9-mile walk into town; sunny/flowers blooming) + drive to Palm Springs for another grocery run (Whole Foods search for tofu; no tofu); 6. leisure drive to Pioneer Town; 7. leisure drive to Integratron (we initially had a soundbath reservation; just checking it out); 8. tennis (testing the waters of outdoor activity) + grocery run (Walmart search for tofu; no tofu).

3. A lot of folks have been in quarantine much longer. A lot of folks are not bored. Many of our friends are actually busier at work. Many have children. We’ve had Zoom calls for happy hour, kids eating; ones mid-morning on the weekend with children showing off their toys, artwork, pets; night calls midweek with tired parents who’ve just put the kids to bed (at some point, often, both parents will suddenly dart their eyes offscreen, their child awake (standing creepily still in the crack of the bedroom door)). The number one quarantine issue? Children. And taking care of them while keeping a job. We have no children or jobs.

4. We’ve been watching a lot of movies. The Criterion Channel has a series called “Observations on Film Art,” small craft discussions on specific films given by film scholars Kristin Thompson, David Bordwell, and Jeff Smith. Discussions include topics such as three-point lighting, analytical editing, narrative and subjective perspective, and mise en scène. We typically watch them mid-afternoon during the week, and in the evenings we’ll watch one of the films discussed. We call it “film school.” We’ve also been watching non-Criterion movies. We call that “junkfood.”

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5. The world now is characterized by invisibility. There is a simple two-part structure to this. The first part is the coronavirus itself, which is invisible. It’s invisibility, as it were, plagues us. I don’t mean the virus itself but specifically its invisibility. The threat of contagion is a contemporary obsession, hence our fascination with zombies and vampires (this is an idea from my friend Carrie). And contagion is tied up in invisibility. Of course pathogens are essentially invisible. These past months, how many times have we visualized the aerosol physics of a sneeze or the infinitesimal transactions of an external surface to our hands and then to our faces? Have we imagined the virus as a globular mass moving like a weather system across a map? Have we thought of it as a binary system, a yes-or-no equation compiled into an exponential curve on a graph? I think that these are all just models to help us see something invisible. The second part of the two-part structure is the world itself, which has become invisible. City streets are empty, businesses dark, playgrounds quiet. The very photographs of these dramatically emptied places feel, themselves, empty, simply tricks of light (Zoom calls can feel this way, too). And of course no other news embodies our discourse, not even the US election―all other facets of the world have become invisible. Our relationships have been emptied of their physical substantiation. I believe that, for many of us, our desires have become invisible (the word that keeps occurring to me as I see folks on video is “enervated”). The future is very much invisible.

6. Yucca Valley has felt pretty remote. We are thousands of miles away from most of the people whom we know. We are not in anything like a city, which is what we are most familiar with. Our home is not ours, nor most of the things in it. But we are situated on an elevated acreage at the foothills of some mountains, in the middle of the Mojave desert, and from here we have the distinct feeling that we can look out across the world. It is a vantage. From it, we’ve been thinking a lot about other people, how their experiences must be different (or the same), and how they are caught up in a society, economy, and governments that have long had massive shortcomings. I look at photos of hospitals in Brooklyn (of drive-up testing lines in Tampa, a lone vendor on a New Delhi street, elaborately suited sanitation workers spraying the floors of a hospital in Wuhan, half-obscured arms and faces hanging out of various apartment windows). I profusely thank the cashier at the grocery store. I wonder about the McDonald’s employees (every time I’ve driven past the one here in Yucca the drive-thru line has extended into the street (maybe the world isn’t so invisible after all)). My wife and I have been lucky to be merely restless, and every item I hold in my hand at the grocer, every truck I see on the highway, the daily sound of the mailman driving the rutted-out dirt road in front of our house, the semiweekly sound of the garbage collectors, every movie I fire up, every light switch I flip, every glass of water I drink, all remind me now, constantly, of how much I depend on other people. “Privilege” is a word, but it isn’t sufficient.

7. In Street of Shame, Kenji Mizoguchi frequently eschews traditional shot/reverse shot editing for dialogue, instead employing continuous shots of characters arranged in very deep composition, through windows and doorways and down hallways, as they converse. The film is set in a red light district of 1950’s Tokyo, when the prohibition of prostitution was being hotly debated, and explores the lives of brothel workers while the existential threat of their legality looms in the background (often, on radio news reports). The effect of Mizoguchi’s direction (and Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography) imparts a sense of claustrophobia and tunnel-vision―characters trapped by different layers of fate. At the same time, it highlights their will and ingenuity, the elaborate social (and staged) choreography they use to keep themselves going.

8. One of the most necessary people in the world is the grandparent. Grandparents have always played an important role, often numerous roles, assisting overburdened parents with childcare; lending knowledge, experience, and emotional support; being a chauffeur, a cook, a maid, a repairman. Now, with no schools or daycare, their value is even greater. One of the most necessary sectors of the economy is the remittance economy. Without it many regions of the world would be unlivable, increasingly so, the more that wealth regionally consolidates. The remittance economy provides critical (if fraught and exploitative) access to those regions of consolidation (I also believe it provides a meaningful act of devotion and heroic narratives of expedition and return). I think a lot about grandparents and migrant laborers during the pandemic, which has been nullifying them. Grandparents, as the group most vulnerable to the virus, have to dramatically limit their interactions with family. Migrant laborers―who literally cannot work from home―face lockdowns, difficult travel, and a contracting economy (and probably increasingly unsafe conditions when they can work).

9. My response to the pandemic, from the specific place that privilege, planning, and luck has put us, has been something like stringent resourcefulness (or ambitions thereof). Buy only what we will absolutely use, in as few and as thoroughly planned trips as we can make. Make use of what we have. If possible, don’t order anything online, or otherwise place stresses on distribution centers and supply chains. Exercise and stay healthy, if mostly immobile. Try to keep days organized, recognizing the inherent limits of time even when time feels endless. Foster my marriage, the one relationship that isn’t cut-off. Say yes to every Zoom and phone call, and make the scheduling work. Wear masks, wash hands, handle as little as possible out in the world. Become, in some ways, invisible. But also deliberate.

10. When we arrived to Yucca Valley, we planned to stay put. We didn’t move the car in five days. During that time, rodents climbed up into our engine block and gnawed on various wires and hoses, damaging a significant amount of the car’s electrical and air systems. Fortunately we were still able to drive it to the mechanic, with alerts going off and very weak acceleration. Repairs cost $1500 and took just shy of two weeks as the pandemic put delays on parts. Since we’ve had it back, I’ve been very nervous about keeping it here. The property owner very swiftly sent us a care package of rodent repellents: peppermint oil spray and an ultrasound noisemaker and light strobe. I installed the noisemaker and every night have been spraying the oil on the tires, wheel wells, CV axles, and front grill, running the engine for a few minutes and driving the car to a new spot on our property. So far we’ve had no new issues. I’ve never worried about rodents damaging my car, but now, and for the rest of my life, I will, at least a little bit. It is a new invisible threat.

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11. I had dinner in New York last September with a friend who was elated that his chronic, lifelong illness had maybe, finally, found an effective and sustainable therapy. He was buoyant describing it. I am sad for him that just as he became healthy the rest of the world became sick. I take the liberty to say that my wife and I experience a similar absurdity, that just as we set out to see the world, the world went into hiding.

12. The opening credits of The Big Lebowski feature a flyover of the lights of Los Angeles, where we were supposed to be in April. Watching the credits, and then rest of the film―the casualness of the bowling alley, streets lined with strip malls, thinly rolled joints and CCR on a beater radio, bathrobes and diner coffee, this sense of the plain citizens of a city magically caught up in the elaborate (and elaborately styled) mysteries of that city―I pined for Los Angeles; I felt the loss of it in our itinerary and our lives. Of course it occurred to me, too, that I pined for that Los Angeles, one in which plain things still exist, and you could be a deadbeat and still live in Venice Beach.

13. I’ve been mixing up the word “suspicion” with “superstition” in writing and speech and thought. I amuse myself with a little joke that I am a “superstitious rationalist.” This goes a long ways back, to my teenage years when I struggled with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I had a working belief in highly ordered superstitions. If I turned a doorknob a precise number of times, then walking through that door would forestall whatever disasters constantly occupied my mind. I could prolong a “good state” (no disasters coming), once attained, by never ceasing movement, resulting in a little tick where I would rub my thumb and forefinger together in endless circles. I did a lot of things like this, and they are worth much longer writings on another occasion. For now to say that for decades I have been in control of my OCD but still see little vestiges of it (for instance, my slightly ritualized way of turning the car on now that I’m worried about rodents). This makes it confusing, sometimes, to understand how to behave during the pandemic. If I don’t leave the house, I won’t get anyone sick―that’s one cause-and-effect thought, but another that I have, almost equally, is that I should always use my red bandannas as a mask. This is just a little fucked up, isn’t it?

14. And superstitions can become suspicions, or vice versa. I see this more when I think about (and judge) how other people behave. I worry tremendously, perhaps most of all, more than anything else with the pandemic, about how suspicious we are becoming. Suspicious that that person, a bit sweaty looking, has the virus. Suspicious that this plastic bag was made in China and thus likewise has it. Suspicious that people are breaking the rules and endangering us (having wild parties in bold defiance, under cover of night, or as here, tucked back in the mountains). Suspicious, rather, that the coronavirus is not as dangerous as has been made out, and that we have shut down the economy and jettisoned millions of jobs for nothing. Suspicious that someone, somewhere, is making a lot of money off of this. Suspicious that when this is over, we will be irretrievably worse off, accustomed to new norms of social distance, new economic orders, new forms, indeed, of suspicion. None of these suspicions is necessarily untrue, but to me (for me) they all behave alarmingly like superstitions, which I am not allowed to have.

15. Judy Davis is absolutely fantastic in Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career.

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16. I am proud of a few resourceful things we’ve done this month, mostly food-related. I soaked, then blended, some of the numerous pounds of mung beans we have, making savory and nutritious pancakes that we’ve tooled into several dishes. I made a delicious vegan mayonnaise with the leftover juice from a can of chickpeas (known as “aquafaba”). I conditioned my exercise bands with coconut oil (usually they need Armor All); I use our hammock straps suspended from our pull-up bar as an olympic ring setup; I can do pretty satisfactory dips on our twin kitchen bins. My wife made fruit leathers with inexpensive frozen strawberries plus overripe bananas; she made potato bark from a cheap bag of russets; she’s cooked and dehydrated three different dals (I’ve done one); she’s pickled several batches of onions and cucumbers in leftover commercial pickle juice. I wiped a sluggish Macbook Pro and put Linux on it (typing now in LibreOffice), learning (yet again) about its quirks, and learning, especially, the photo-editing application Darktable (since I no longer have access to Adobe’s Lightroom; Darktable proves a superior, if harder-to-use, application). My wife made an elaborate meal plan for the next several weeks using the colored pencils and drawing paper in our art supply–appointed rental. She also cut her own hair. We both wear the same clothes for longer than we should.

17. I read the New York Times pretty obsessively and yet I still do terribly on the quizzes.

18. In Robert Altman’s Nashville, a presidential campaign van (for the fictional candidate Hal Philip Walker, running under the “Replacement Party”) is always driving around at the periphery, proselytizing a political sea-change via its loudspeaker. The ensemble cast of characters seem mostly to ignore it, too focused on their personal ambitions and desires (“Neoliberal Subjectivity,” as it were). But for the audience, the constantly droning speech from this mostly invisible source imparts a faint but widespread sense of menace. The film’s timeline leads up to a fundraising gala for the campaign, and there is an increasing anticipation in the film that something bad will happen there, or at least that everything will fall apart. This suspension of ambient dread atop the individual energies of the individual characters lost in their pursuits is one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever experienced in a story. It is similar to the public dread + personal ambitions dynamic of Street of Shame (though more comically employed). And yet what I take away most from Nashville is the desire to see live music, be elbow to elbow with sweaty (70s sweaty) strangers.

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19. There is a tremendous amount of both law and marketing being improvised right now. My wife and I encounter the first mostly as we navigate campground and forest closures while we try to figure out what next steps, if any, we can take in our travels. Jurisdictions overlap. I’ve read national, state, county, and municipal documents―from CDC guidelines to gubernatorial executive orders, National Park Service boilerplate to statements from regional BLM field offices. Language shifts and shimmies―squirms, maybe―through neighboring connotations, “stay-at-home” vs. “shelter-in-place” vs. “stay home, stay healthy” “orders” or “recommendations” or “initiatives.” The second―marketing―feels slightly desperate and especially improvised. The Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago (we were longtime subscribers when we lived there) has been proffering podcasts, videos, virtual performances, or simply “thoughts.” The Greenwood Sip ‘N Ship (who handles our virtual mailbox) has increased their email campaigns, offering words of inspiration and camaraderie (“Kindness is Contagious” and “Six Feet Apart Can’t Keep our Love Away”). REI has altered the approach of their famous sales (the “Inside/Outside” sale, for instance), and the various cottage outdoor brands I follow have been sending emails geared toward planning and training (“No Gear Required: 11 Bodyweight Exercises to Train for Hiking”), encouraging its readers to keep thinking about that next adventure. Law describes and conditions our material reality. Marketing stands in lieu of it. Both are to the side of it. They are, as it were, derivatives. I ask you to remember that word.

20. There are remarkable similarities between Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. They are both portraits of a defined social milieu. They both intermix their ensemble casts in various dialogue combinations (Renoir preferring mobile long shots that poke into different conversations, Linklater lacing together medium shot walk-and-talks) to articulate a complex social network. They both feature an abundance of alcohol. They both have a hunt (Renoir’s is for pheasant and rabbits, Linklater’s for freshmen). They both careen toward an epic party (La Colinière, the Moontower). As such, both also focus a lot on hooking up (Linklater’s is decidedly more innocent). They both have characters who wrestle with the limitations society has given them. Music drives them both. I don’t know maybe I’m describing a lot of movies.

21. I guess my other relationships haven’t been fully “cut-off.” In fact, one joyous aspect of the pandemic has been Zooming with old friends. A major motivation of our trip was to reconnect with people from whom we’ve grown―if still occasionally connected―mostly estranged. Zoom calls are a poor substitute for the deeper and more sustained engagements we had in mind, but they do evince a new commonality, a will to be together despite the quarantines (and, I would argue, the separate social and economic demands) that keep us apart.

22. I love Goddard’s Breathless even though I am weary of every character type in it.

23. Mine and my wife’s 10-year wedding anniversary is May 1. Six months (plus one day) prior to that date, I woke up just before 6AM to spam Recreation.gov with my keystrokes so I could get a choice coastal camp in Big Sur. In many places, especially California, this kind of behavior is necessary. I succeeded, and we’ve looked forward to our stay there. Upon the pandemic, the campground we selected (Kirk Creek Campground in the Los Padres National Forest) was closed. That closure went through April 30th, one day into our reservation. But our entire reservation was canceled. I was notified of this just as I was about to jump in the shower. I took a shower, then got back onto Recreation.gov to see if I could rebook the rest of our itinerary. In that time (my shower), someone else had booked our site. Most of the rest of the camp was also booked. I will be frank about my anger with this maddening dynamic. The campground is emptied, and yet then it is made rapidly full. I am competing with both forces simultaneously. People, in both cases, and in oddly the same way, are the problem. I am also a person.

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24. These are the sounds where we are: dirtbikes and ATVs, dogs (many dogs) barking, roosters, a pig, a donkey (hilariously cliché, “hee-haw, hee-haw”), the minute clacking sound of lizards running across the rocks of our driveway, the surprisingly heavy sound of wingbeats from many kinds of birds (from hummingbirds to doves to enormous ravens), lots of chirping, ambient highway noise, ambient wind noise.

25. Of course The Big Lebowski also employs a peripheral menace: this aggression will not stand, geopolitical uncertainty conditioning the super (media: Bush Sr. on the TV at the grocery store) and sub (dreams: Saddam Hussein handing the Dude his bowling shoes during his Rohypnol dream sequence) consciousness.

26. Surely we’ve all had some difficulty understanding public health guidelines. Mostly we should be at home―got that. But is it OK to go to the park sometimes? Should I shop at the grocery store rapidly? How often should I wash my clothes? Going back and forth over what’s right and what’s wrong has, I’ll bet, made some of us feel, if ever so faintly, like a criminal. Is being, merely, outside, illegal? What about driving in my car, touching this handrail, letting my mask slide this far down my face? Is it criminal to see my mother? As a longtime (i.e. before any states legalized) user of cannabis, I’m fairly comfortable with a diffuse sense of criminality. I’m also good at recognizing it, and finding, for what it’s worth, entertainment in it.

27. People are literally dying.

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28. Thinking about thinking a lot about certain things: I’ve been captured by a notion introduced to me by Michael Allen Gillespie’s excellent, if unwieldily titled, Hegel, Heidegger, and the Ground of History. In his history of the philosophy of history, Gillespie discusses a Heideggerian concept that supposes a development of rationality into the hyperrational. Bear with me. The idea is that the project of rationality (i.e. the Enlightenment, democracy, and capitalism) has lead to a hyperrational state wherein the very forces of liberty, equality, science, and truth are leveraged via technical supremacy to consolidate power, ultimately evaporating “reality” and replacing it with, for lack of a better word, “representation.” So the electoral college process of democracy becomes distorted by severe gerrymandering. The rigors of journalism and the labor of fact-finding and documentation give way to the cheaper content of talking heads, and then to the even cheaper content of audience opinion (i.e. social media). Politicians are no longer legal scholars or decorated veterans but celebrities, and not even celebrities but “reality” TV celebrities. Our economy implodes not because of drought or war or even fear, but the insubstantiation of debt and speculation and “derivative instruments” (did you remember?). Human experience is replaced by law and marketing (and photography and videos and emojis). In all of these cases power leaps from reality to the representation of reality (from gold to “trust”), where greater efficiencies and scales lie. Except that Heidegger (and many other important philosophers) would probably argue that it’s not so much a leap from reality to representation but a radical exposition of reality as only, ever and always, representation. There is no ontology, only epistemology. There is not thought, only language. No truth, only games. And yet within this radicality, within the specific history of its intellectual development (i.e. the Twentieth Century), the emergence of “mankind” has been profound (here I’m citing Foucault and The Order of Things), recourse to humanity as an inviolable narrative, an exceptionally real nucleus negotiating an unreal world.

29. Zombieland was just satisfying, for whatever stupidities it exploits (do we really need a love interest in this?). Fuck you, apocalypse.

30. I should mention here that I am anxious, but not necessarily fearful. This is maybe tied up in my OCD. I sense dread, immensely, but in terms of the system and not necessarily myself. I don’t mean to be saintly about this, just trying to understand myself. I worry about maintaining my relationships and what others think of me, but I am not, as best as I can suss out, afraid of dying.

31. National Lampoon’s Vacation, directed by the still underappreciated Harold Ramis (and starring the skilled if somewhat insufferable Chevy Chase, who struck me this go-round as something of a reup of Jacques Tati but with speaking lines and a libido), gratifies mine and my wife’s situation by positing a roadtrip (“holiday ro-ohhhhhh-ohhhhh-ohhhh-ohhhh-ohhh-ohhhh-ohhhh-oh-od”) across the American West that ends in an abrupt closure of the promised land. I want to punch that fucking moose right in its fucking nose.

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32. And so maybe our humanity is secured by the emergence of “mankind,” except that I am reminded of the opinions of numerous polar scientists, which are paraphrased deftly in Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World. Spend enough time in the worrisome mental perambulations of pandemic thought and one will undoubtedly arrive at climate change as an even more horrifying future. Much of the communication of climate change is anchored in a concept of human stewardship, of the Anthropocene, of our own fault, responsibility, and possibly redemption. Like many I believe climate change is our greatest task ahead, that we have to exercise our great powers responsibly, caringly. And yet how do the polar scientists of Herzog’s film feel? We should be so arrogant to think that we have control. This is not the Anthropocene. Nature is always in control. When we exceed its allowances, Nature will simply regulate us.

33. So the coronavirus. Are we the inviolable nucleus of reality navigating the indeterminacies of an unreal world? Nay, we are merely hosts of an even greater indeterminacy, the not-even-DNA-complete force of a virus. We have become derivative to life itself.

34. OK that’s enough of that. I should probably walk this back a little bit. Look I can get kind of goth sometimes, as a lover of German philosophy, as a recovering obsessive-compulsive. It’s late April, and yes April is the cruelest month, but things are looking up. “Mankind” might be a myth, but I believe in the human will, because I see it everyday during this god damned thing, the smartest, hardest working people (it goes without saying that the US president is not included in this description) employing unprecedented technologies (which humans have built) and sharing their knowledge and skills at breakneck speed to try and beat this thing. I’m suspicious that the pandemic might even help us see more clearly, understand how connected we really are, realize that Nature needn’t regulate us, that we can in fact regulate ourselves. My wife and I will celebrate our 10-year anniversary right here in Yucca (extending our stay), cooking a great meal and working on a playlist of the music that has been most meaningful to us during our marriage. We plan to get back on the road soon―probably not the California coast, more likely southern Utah―as long as we can do it responsibly. I want a better world, but there is still no other world, and no other time, I would rather live in.

Yucca Valley, CA, April 27, 2020

Mardi Gras

I first noticed the ulcer on my tongue in City Park in New Orleans on the third weekend of Carnival. I was sitting down with friends to little paper bags full of beignets and powdered sugar, next to cups of chicory coffee mixed with milk, at an outpost of the famous Café du Monde. I noticed the powdered sugar irritating the right side of my tongue. Beignets are already a little bit awkward to eat, and I found myself going at them more and more askew, increasingly favoring the left side of my mouth (where many years ago I had a molar removed and never replaced), slowly working the dough into a mash soft enough to swallow. It wasn’t the most enjoyable experience of beignets, though the warm, creamy coffee provided some succor. I knew right away that a canker sore was coming, forming as a little polyp on a spot where my tongue met my teeth. By the next day, at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, I was avoiding the right side of my mouth completely, softening the fried okra and delicate red beans with copious amounts of iced tea. I was starting to talk with a lisp, and I was grateful that my friends were leaving that afternoon, not because I was eager to see them go, but because it meant I could sit silently and watch movies for the rest of the day, drinking little cups of whisky. When I woke up the next morning opening my jaw and pulling my tongue away from my teeth felt like ripping duct tape off of sutured-up sunburn. I teared up a little bit, hurrying to the bathroom to gargle some water. The sore was grayish-white and nearly a quarter inch across, alarmingly deep. Little bubbles of spit foamed in its concavity. I stared at it in the mirror while construction equipment―tractors and backhoes and such―passed by outside, softly quaking the house.

I quickly began a regimen of saline gargles, avoided sugar and salt dustings (up until then, I was delighting in coating everything in a Slap Ya’ Mama, a simple and delicious (if unfortunately named) cajun seasoning found widely throughout Louisiana), and began with a full-on Daffy Duck slur, trying to keep the canker sore completely outside my dental complex, which made for some amusing conversations with my wife. By evenings, my tongue was tired and strained from the altered biomechanics. Eating was so laborious I lost my appetite; kissing was painful and made me feel like a mutant; I was getting humidity headaches; anything carbonated (mostly, beer) stung sharply, as did anything acidic (mostly, wine). Whisky was the best relief, and I bathed my tongue in it, enjoying the numbing effects with a giddy I haven’t felt in what must be at least a decade. I had absurdly little time to convalesce, mere days before eleven of our friends would arrive in waves for Mardi Gras weekend. My wife and I took it easy, running errands and getting the house cleaned up; the weather shifted around restlessly and you could feel the city and its traffic in kinds of high-intensity intervals, a start-stop arrhythmia that felt anxious and unsure. I was irritable but mellow. I tried very hard not to move my tongue, for any reason whatsoever.

~

We spent 29 days in New Orleans, pretty much the entirety of the Carnival season. We had 15 different guests, went to 9 parades, saw (I estimate) 20 music shows (not counting street musicians or marching bands), drank 6 liters of whisky, 15 or so of wine, and caught around 80 pounds of beads. These aren’t necessarily impressive numbers (we also watched, easily, 30 hours of television), but I mention them to satisfy a weird desire to quantify our time in New Orleans. Because while we spent an entire month there, it was an artificial month. It was Mardi Gras, and we don’t have jobs, and our experience as longtime tourists ran messily against the complexities of the city, which were so present around us, so unhidden.

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Beignets and chicory café au lait at the Café du Monde.

I want to say it right away: I think New Orleans is the most American city in America. True, New Orleans is pretty singular, quite unique, but many cities have their unique qualities (New York, as the center of the world, is also uniquely New Yorkish (though perhaps long in the process of losing that)). True, New Orleans is on a far-flung edge, the Gulf Coast, the Deep South. But it absorbs these regional qualities within an American way of being that is much larger than them. It unites the north and the south (in politics, sensibility, accent), the urban and rural (and suburban), the extravagant and the impoverished. Its roads are complete shit (and the remnants of the collapsed Hard Rock Hotel remain in its skyline), but there’s fat, salt, and sugar in damn near everything. It has brand new parks and age-old sewage. It’s very segregated on one hand and yet famously integrated culturally. It bears the ineffable time stamp of a catastrophe (Hurricane Katrina) in a way few other cities do, and yet this time stamp powerfully exemplifies the contemporary catastrophes that have defined all of America in the past decades (9/11, the 2008 economic collapse, mass shootings, political upheavals). It’s artsy and fratty. It’s touristy and proudly local. It’s full of violence and love. Mardi Gras, its most famous indulgence, is predicated on abstinence. Its grand metaphor is jazz.

I say all of this casually, and as I’m wont to do in these writings, please take the caveat that I don’t mean to offer anything definitive―indeed this is the impression of an unrooted tourist doing little else for the city than spending money there. These thoughts are contextualized by my own baggage. Which is to say: New Orleans did far more for me than I could ever do for it. All of this complexity was, for me, a needed affirmation of a true reality in a time of bewilderingly hyperreality (this will remain a theme of these writings). This is true even of the masquerade of Mardi Gras, which I found remarkably devoid of mediatization, remarkably old school, as it were. It is alive and well and fully in the streets and real gatherings of real communities, buoyed by the efforts (and dollars) of thousands and thousands of people, numerous organizations (krewes and sub-krewes), and around two centuries of traditions. It persists unapologetically, and I say that because there is plenty about it at which to be aghast. Even forgoing the stupidities of Bourbon street, an outsider might notice the incredible excess of plastic in the parade throws (shout-out to the Arc of New Orleans, one of the only organizations with a bead recycling (combined with job rehabilitation) program―this was the final destination of most of our 80 pounds). Or one may pause in front of the masking, some of which has racist echoes, like the eerily klan-like masks found in many of the larger krewes or the signature black makeup―which many outsiders might construe as black-face―of The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club (this is, by the way, one of the very best parades in all of Carnival, taking place the morning of Mardi Gras day). Yet the the complex of these moral confusions among all of the other (less troublesome) signs and motifs and fetishes of Mardi Gras amounted to a tremendous reassurance for me. Somewhat like our experience of the Everglades, Mardi Gras felt completely its own: tenacious, proud, bold, very, very alive. That I want to analyze it feels mostly useless.

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A float in the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade on Mardis Gras day.

Besides, we were there to party. And party we did. It was, in two words, absolutely amazing to have so many friends come join us. We stayed in Bayou St. John, a block off the Lafitte Greenway, which made for an easy walk through the Treme and into the French Quarter. We caught early parades like Krewe Bohème and Krewe du Vieux in the quarter with some of my oldest friends from childhood, feeling high and giddy afterward among the incredible (almost all homemade) costumes at an after-party at The Black Penny on Rampart. We saw some of the larger family parades (Carrollton and King Arthur) on a relaxed weekend in uptown with a poet-friend and old colleague following an extensive and what ended up being private tour of St. Louis No. 2 cemetery. We had a mega crush of guests for the Super-Krewe parade Endymion, before which my wife and I danced to Bruce Springsteen covers at their Samedi Gras street party and after which we hosted an impromptu party at our house in a sea of beads and blinking trinkets (our defacto niece was fully wound up). We triangulated the routes of Red Beans and Dead Beans to catch them nearly at their intersection, finding their goofy and brilliant designs (all made out of beans) a lovely alternative to the more gaudy (and again, insanely plastic-heavy) conventional parades.

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A very crowded Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras day.

And, impossibly, after weeks of parades and nights stumbling the quarter or Frenchman street or the Bywater, we woke up at 8am on Mardi Gras day, smeared some stale grocery store King Cake into our faces, packed whatever beers we had left, and made it to the sidewalk side of Zulu just blocks before its terminus at the Social Aid and Pleasure Club in the heart of the Treme. We were there for nearly six hours, screaming in adoration, dancing to fantastic marching bands, drinking warm tallboys of Highlife and snacking on anything that was available, many of us paying to use a nearby porta-potty. After the parade we walked through the massive street party on Claiborne under the I-10 overpass (also the gathering of many of the Second Line parades (it should be noted that before the highway was constructed in the 60s, this used to be a beautiful, live oak–lined street that defined the Treme, one of the most important black communities in America; to hear horn bands echoing against the concrete is to hear a kind of defiance, a tenacity). From there we headed down into the quarter, buying (surprisingly good) pizza on Bourbon street, then making our way to Marigny in search of what we remembered to be a relaxed and delightful bar (the Royal Street Inn), hoping for crowd-respite there but of course, in our uninformed tourism, finding instead the massive gathering of the Society of St. Anne walking parade, a true locals parade characterized by elaborate costumes of various themes (eighteenth century French court life remains a persistent one, via krewes such as The Merry Antoinettes; we were within fifty feet of a powdered wig for most of Mardi Gras night; and yes this is a pretty stark “white” contrast to the Zulu parade). From there we split up a bit, and a smaller group of us went club hopping on Frenchman street, in search of a good brass band, eventually finding it at the Blue Nile, where the Marigny Street Brass Band took the stage at 9pm.

Musically, for me, one of the best traditions of New Orleans music is the Second Line–style brass band: usually tuba/sousaphone, trombone, trumpet, saxophone, a snare player, and a bass drum and cymbal player, with maybe a guitarist or keyboardist, but not necessarily. It’s parading music as much as it is dancing music, and it has a mix of tresillo shuffle, swing, and funk that I find absolutely intoxicating. Talk to a New Orleanian and they might mention the Rebirth Brass Band as a fundamental group. I heard it everywhere on loudspeakers but seemed always to miss it in its live forms, save the occasional street ensemble or a distant, undefinable echo. I think, probably, I wasn’t staying up late enough most nights. But Mardi Gras I did, and it felt like my holy New Orleans grail to see such a good band, dance so freely, clutching my Zulu medallion beads to keep them from snapping free but also, of course, in a kind of communion, as best as I could be allowed. My tongue still hurt, but it only made sense―that organ of appetite and expression, overwhelmed by a city engaging both at the fullest.

 

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The rumored real tomb of Marie Laveau in St. Louis No. 2 (affectionately called the “Faux Laveau”)

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I got into taking these tableaux of parade litter

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Charlie and the Tropicales doing their Monday night set of French Caribbean tunes at the wonderful Bacchanal in the Bywater.

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Under the I-10 overpass, Claiborne Ave, after the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras day.

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St. Anne and other masqueraders in the Marigny on Mardi Gras day.

 

More photos here: https://www.amazon.com/photos/shared/PCR1VNMrTKi17y7TlQ-OPg.5EcyHaGaVmX4sIVqgcmkIZ

―Sam Houston National Forest, March 02, 2020

 

 

The Everglades

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A brown pelican aloft above Jewell Key in the Florida Everglades

Probably the first thing I ever got serious about was playing the drums. The interest initially came about because of friends; I remember the music teacher visiting our fifth grade classroom, demonstrating various instruments, and while I liked the trumpet, my friends signed up for the drums, so I did, too. I took lessons for one year, then moved from Baltimore to the suburbs of Chicago, starting middle school. The drums were the only interest I really knew how to take with me, and I clung on to them during that difficult social transition (new city, no friends, right at the start of adolescence), so I signed up for band. Within the year I was pretty obsessed. I’ve played the drums ever since, even deep into my thirties, and while I was never dedicated enough to try to make a livelihood of it, playing the drums has been one of my greatest joys in life, and it has definitely had a profound impact on my mind and the way I organize my universe.

Which is to say, it has made me think about nearly everything as bound to a rhythm. This is undoubtedly true about my writing, and the drums are probably the reason I became a poet. But it is also everywhere else. In working life, it defined my daily routines, the process of making coffee and breakfast, of catching certain buses, the flow of emails and reports, of meetings and casual conversations, the rhythms of computers and the dance-like navigation of interfaces, buildings, and streets; it organizes the energy of a week, the goals of a month, and the meaningfulness of a year. An ingrained sense of rhythm is probably why I’ve always felt so comfortable in the Midwest, with its well-defined seasons and associated cultural calendars. Of course, I have no special claim to rhythmic thinking―maybe just that I have been especially sensitive to it―and in fact I think of rhythm, patterning, and beat, with their emphasis on anticipation and memory, as a universal human expression. They are forms of time travel. The next time you listen to your favorite song, feel yourself waiting for the chorus (or simply clap your hands on the downbeats and feel what lapses in between): that held breath, that attendance. You are living in the now, the then, and the will be all at once. You are transcending time in a special way. You are, as many might say, in the groove.

Traveling on this trip has overturned my sense of rhythm. It’s been one of the more surprising elements, even as I have been anticipating its dynamic. I’ve made numerous lists of daily routines to keep me “regular,” and I’ve barely followed them. My waking and sleeping times have been affected by shifting time zones and whatever schedules are dictated by the cities I’ve been in and the people whom I’ve been with. I can go a whole day just eating snacks, or I can have three huge meals, and for the most part it all feels the same. I’ve been undercaffeinated and overcaffeinated; I’ve been hungover, exuberant, or focused seemingly at random. For money and crowd reasons, my wife and I have inverted our weeks, going out on Mondays and Tuesdays and staying in on the weekends (though even that, too, is changing now that we are here in New Orleans, hosting groups of friends every weekend). I feel like my fingernails and beard are growing more quickly, in need of more frequent grooming. I’ve been cycling my clothes differently, more like backpacking, with daytime and nighttime outfits I wear through a succession of days (it’s easier this way living out of a bag), so outfits have started to define little periods of three or four days. Waiting out an additional ten minutes on the clothes dryer in the garage of our rental can feel interminable, and yet days on the road feel like a passing thought, a small dream of podcasts and traffic and variously clouded skies, of gas station picnics and hurried campstove dinners under dusk and then headlamp. I’m a week late in getting to these writings, and even now paused them to talk with some friends for half an hour. New friends arrive in New Orleans tomorrow. Mardi Gras is less than two weeks away. In four days we will have been on the road for two months.

We spent our first few days in Florida staying with my wife’s parents in their new condominium in North Naples. It was great to be there with them in the newness of their retirement winter home in the very midst of its final touches, and while we went out for happy hours, the beach, and even dancing, a lot of our time was sharing in our sort of mutual retirements, getting acquainted with new routines, a new home, really a new sense of living (less new for them, to be sure). I have been thinking a lot about one specific aspect of their renovations: when we first arrived in Naples, they had just put their kitchen shelves up and were frustrated by delays with their counter-top installation, which was supposed to have been complete by our arrival but was not. We spent a few days pretty much without a kitchen, eating sandwiches and washing our dishes in the bathroom sink, then my wife and I left for five days to paddle the Everglades, and when we returned the counter tops had been installed. I felt a domestic meaningfulness to that magical appearance, as though the ability to cook in that kitchen underscored something my wife and have been cultivating for a long time.

We joke, though I think with considerable truth, that we were able to save for this yearlong trip simply by eating-in all the time. Being on the road, we’ve been learning the ropes of our new food routines, and it has felt good being in apartments in Nashville and now New Orleans, not only to be able to cook but to plan a week’s worth of meals, to be more deliberate and joyful about going out to eat and not just needing to grab fast food (though a veggie burger in a brewery you’ve never heard of is often both quite reliable!). I have much more to say about this, about grocery and market shopping across the country, regional cuisine and the way foods signal heritage or gentrification, about our own mobile kitchen and pantry, our evolving cache of homemade dehydrated backpacking food (our food dehydrator rides in the roofbox of our car), and more, all for a different set of posts, and hopefully with input from my wife, the executive chef of our lives. For now just to say that I very much think of our time in Naples with my wife’s folks as characterized by the inability and then ability to use a kitchen.

What I want to talk about now is wilderness. Much of the later months of our trip will be defined by wilderness, and in many ways this is seasonally deliberate. That Carnival takes place in February only helped cement the plan that we would spend our urban time (and accommodations budget) during the winter and spring months (all of February here in New Orleans; all of April in Los Angeles), and when the north (and the mountains) are gradually opened up by warmer weather, we’d shift modes. But we did want to mix this up a little bit, and next month, March, we’ll be almost entirely on the road, heading through wilderness areas in Texas and the southwest, with trips planned for Big Bend and the Grand Canyon, and probably more trips we’ll improvise along the way (we will also spend some time in cities like Austin). And of course one of the main reasons we went to Florida in January, apart from visiting our family, was to paddle the Everglades, a trip we’ve been thinking about for many years now.

I have been bewitched by wilderness for, well, all my life, but especially the last five years or so, right when we started thinking about going to Alaska (which we did in 2016, and we will do again this year). It’s one of the main reasons I wanted to move to Seattle (along with poetry and an incredible opportunity with my favorite press), and during this span of time we’ve gone backpacking at least once a month (during the summer nearly every weekend). My enthusiasm for wilderness during our sabbatical is so great I have to manage it, try not to get obsessed looking at topo maps for a trip four months from now when I should be planning the upcoming week. I had thought of this time in the Everglades as something of a prelude, but I was kind of wrong to think that way. It was itself, it’s own thing, full of surprises, lessons, and other communications, some of which seemed to resonate with the imaginary of our future wilderness trips and others that stood obstinately apart. It forced us to be present to itself as ourselves with an especially demanding attention―not just present to the moment and its qualities (weather, distance, etc) but present to our own assumptions, applicable and nonapplicable knowledge and skills, satisfactory or unsatisfactory research (ask me where Crooked Creek chickee is sometime), our own energy or fatigue.
Coming from Naples, our obvious put-in would be the Gulf Coast side, near Everglades City and Chokoloskee. Permits at Everglades National Park are all first-come, first-served, but the only real anxiety we had was securing chickees―elevated wooden platforms scattered throughout the remote backwater mangrove labyrinths, a unique and wonderful camping experience (and with tight quotas, since you can only fit two parties on each). We had rented a long, aluminum canoe (read: a slow tank) months in advance, but didn’t know what our route would be until the day before, when we woke up early and drove the hour south, watching the primrose sunrise scatter egrets and pelicans across the low-lying swamps of Big Cypress, arriving to a fairly empty backcountry office and our pick of camps. With high winds the first couple of days (and upon the recommendation of the ranger), we opted to start in the backwaters, camping two nights on the chickees as we paddled south along the wilderness waterway, emerging then into the open bay (with now calmer winds) where we paddled out to some of the farther keys to camp on remote beaches nearly to ourselves, slowly heading back north and then east into the passes of the Ten Thousand Islands to complete our loop.

Everglades 2020 ROUTE

Our route

Apart from unusually cold weather the first few nights (which we were hardly bothered by given all of our mountain experience) everything went almost 100% to spec. The largest challenge of the trip was marine navigation, which we have pretty much zero experience with. If you can read a USGS topo map then you can read a NOAA chart (swapping out contour lines for water depths), though doing so with a partner while also trying to keep on bearings in high winds and not run a-shoal on low tides in the very shallow Everglades will test any newbie (and any marriage). Not to mention the fact that islands and passages can hide behind each other in ways that mountains have more difficulty with (being so tall and noticeable!), so you really have to navigate by bearing (or GPS location, as we ended up doing). Paddling is also a different kind of exertion than hiking, and in tides, currents, and winds, your sense of progress, pace, and rhythm can get fairly messed up. A head wind, for instance, blowing ripples toward you along the surface of the water, will make it look like you are cruising forward, when in fact you are barely moving. A tailwind, just by virtue of its insistence, will make you feel like you are struggling, when in fact it’s assisting you mightily. Any seasoned paddler has a good feel for these things, but we are not exactly seasoned paddlers. And need I repeat: we were in a canoe, a fact that gave pause to most of the few people we encountered (in fact, we only saw one other group of canoeists the entire time).

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Triple checking the GPS that that is, in fact, Pavilion Key, before we paddle across the open water.

Overall, though, these were enjoyable challenges, and they reminded us helpfully of the fact that, while not tucked high up in mountains, the Everglades are still a remote and rugged place (as it happens, a kayaker got lost and stranded for several days during the same week we were there; he was safely rescued). They are true wilderness, an important and fragile one, home to a wonderful community of alligators, sharks, rays, dolphins, lizards, crabs, raccoon, and especially fish, and especially especially, birds. We encountered all of these creatures almost constantly. The sound of brown pelicans splashing noisily into the waters, or of dolphin exhaling wet gustos of breath, or mullet fish leaping and plopping in goofy rhythms all around our chickees (shining a headlamp on them makes them freak out even more), or the morning cacophony of roosting ibis, became the backdrop noise of our time there, like the sounds of traffic or construction. The diversity reminded us―in a way that the even the dense and lush forest of the Pacific Northwest haven’t quite done―of what is at stake in our changing world. The spirit of a mountain forest surrounds you, but apart from the occasional visit from a jay or a bear or even a herd of elk, the forest feels for the most part only barely populated. A great forest is more like a temple than a city, and in many ways that’s why I love them. But the Everglades, and the transitional marine environment they encompass, is indeed a city, chock full of inhabitants. Every single mullet fish that lept, every gull or pelican that swooped down in front of us, had a remarkably perceptible intentionality, a purpose, a pursuit, a narrative, a life and above all a dignity in that life. Egrets standing tall on the hunt above the shallows in which they wade, leaping sting rays, the arcing paths of sharks’ dorsal fins, dolphins cruising the shorelines in small groups, even lone gators sunning on a haul-out―all of these actions increasingly imparted to me this sense of dignity. And while it felt so abundant, it also felt so fragile, as I know these areas are one of the front-lines of climate change. Traveling from Florida to New Orleans along the gulf, spending time on the thin barrier islands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and, just last week, Grand Isle here in Louisiana, that sense of fragility was even more stark. These are places that will be the first to be erased by rising seas. They are extraordinary places, rookeries and harbors, long, singular extensions that bring land and sea together in wild, wind-swept communion. They will be in my imagination, now, forever.

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Entering the backwaters via the Turner River.

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An elegantly preening ibis perched among the mangrove roots.

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Crooked Creek chickee.

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Smiling alligator. Shot from our chickee on Sweetwater Bay.

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How low can this pelican go? Just offshore of Jewell Key.

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One of the more perfect sunsets on remote Pavilion Key.

You can view a full set of our Everglade (with a few other places) photos here: https://www.amazon.com/photos/shared/YMO-2nYDQ8ymVkN9NYcbNA.AwCXYJMBS3jO3QIDi0c3uG

―February 13, New Orleans, LA

Nashville and Memphis

In my sleeplessness I can hear the traffic picking up on Vanderbilt Beach Road here in North Naples, Florida, where we are staying with my wife’s parents. The sound is not dissimilar to that of waves lapping against a beach or gentle undulations of wind through a forest canopy, though it’s reminding me now of all the early mornings in Chicago years ago when I would lay in bed in our condo, which sat at the corner of two busy streets, Grand and Western, that would express a swelling morning urgency in that short predawn dark in which, in more religious places, prayers might instead be heard. It’s the sound of activity, commercium, plans, of rush hour, and these past days in blissed-out Florida it has mixed with recurring dreams of work, of trying to return to work, or apply for work, dreams in which I would find myself among former colleagues populating made-up places, the twenty-somethings of long-ago jobs now middle-aged and focused, directing me through the interiors of elaborately vertical high-rise buildings with complicated elevators or labyrinths of interconnected campus buildings (in my dream last night I was at the University of Chicago, where I used to work, though it was, of course, not actually like U of C, but instead some newly built educational park, its buildings characterized by cantilevered joists and massive angles of glass, polished concrete, sporadic seating, and even temperatures as you move from room to room). In all of these dreams trying to reenter work is not going well―I can’t login to the computers, I don’t get the inside jokes, I don’t know the keycodes, the directories, or the abbreviations ; I try to fake it but fool no one; I’m gently mocked; I’m a source of some annoyance, even to those who know me, who vouched for me, who I remember liking me before. As I cycle from these dream scenarios to actual consciousness, lying in bed listening to the road, I can feel, or mentally visualize, the sunrise, the gorgeous pink dawns of Florida slowly articulating the palm trees and bougainvillea, making the glassy surface of the subdivision’s pool and that of its manicured pond glow in slowly changing colors of pink and blue and purple, until the day is established and the waters assume their hard reflection of the uniform, blue sky and whatever geometries of buildings and landscaping interrupt it. I feel already kind of stoned and incapable, the day not even begun. Then I slowly think of the few things I need to do. Then I remember we are about to impeach the president.

~

I am ashamed to admit that I’ve been a little nervous to drive through the south, afraid of my interactions with people as someone with a northern accent, afraid of antagonism, contempt, or even just my own anxieties increasing as I see more and more signs of our difference. I’ve been especially anxious to enter “Trump Country.” But I’ve been surprised to see (see) hardly any signs of Trump support at all, and these have been days on highways and two-lane country roads (most of our drive through southern Alabama and Georgia was a string of two-lane roads), the very days leading up to his impeachment. No rallies over road -spanning bridges, very few lawn signs or flags, at most half a dozen bumper stickers,. I’ve been joking that we’ve seen more confederate flags than MAGA hats, though even the flags have been just a few (of note, one particularly massive one on a property next to I-75 in central Florida).

But the view from the road is extraordinarily shallow, and in any case it’s a completely naive and imperial attitude to assume you can understand the totality of a place, or even define a place such as “the South.” Instead we’ve been trying to approach something more like a “heartland” or “spirit-land” of America, through the specific tourist enjoyment of music, especially country (especially bluegrass) and soul. We will be going to New Orleans in February, and no doubt this little project will continue there, but for this section we were anchored by two places/experiences: seeing the Grand Ole Opry in the Ryman auditorium in Nashville and visiting the site of STAX Records in Memphis, which has been rebuilt into an excellent museum of American soul music.

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The original mixing board from STAX studios.

We got to Nashville after a great visit with some family in Louisville, and we stayed in a cozy loft above an alleyway garage. Nashville as a whole is booming, that’s the general consensus from locals. There’s been an explosion of new restaurants and bars, a spike in real estate, and an overwhelming aggravation of traffic over the past five years or so (this is a very similar attitude we encountered in Seattle, also famously exploding). It’s been marketing itself as a bachelorette party capital, and whether you are wandering the Gulch on a glitzy afternoon of brand-name shopping (though, why would you do that?) or drinking tall-boys with hipsters in East Nashville, the same sense of change is apparent―Nashville has become a destination for young people. I have felt a slight sense of carpetbaggery to this boom, but it also seems to fit perfectly within Nashville’s historic commercial motivations, shaping and packaging southern culture for national audiences, especially via country music.

It is this sense of packaging that has been particularly interesting to me because, as with other forms of cultural export (Italian cooking, the French language), it relies on an expert knowledge of techniques and tropes, which are recombined over and over to make new things, things that are pleasing, impressive, and confidently indicate an original kind (i.e. things that are “authentic”). I was elated to see two great bluegrass shows, the Sunday night jam session at the Station Inn and then a Monday night show from East Nash Grass at Dee’s Lounge. The former was old-timers, so to speak, and the latter young players (they couldn’t have been older than 30), but in both cases the players’ kinesthetic knowledge of the progressions and scales and their casual but absolute command of the repertoire evinced an uneraseable familiarity, thousands upon thousands of hours of practice (both musically and socially, players jumping in and out, barely a head nod to the next soloist).

What I’m describing, I believe, is tradition. The Grand Ole Opry uses tradition to anchor its presentation of new artists, mixing bluegrass (often comedy-bluegrass) routines with various country standards (travel advice: if you want to see a real celebration of country standards, go to Robert’s Western World on Broadway, which we did numerous nights as our supposed-to-be-nightcap―hardest working country cover bands in America) to help shape the presentation of newer artists (for our show the newer artists were Mark Wills, Mitchell Tenpenny, and the band Seaforth; the headliner was modern country legend Vince Gill). The format of the Opry itself is traditional: an old-time radio revue, complete with an announcer (20-year veteran Eddie Stubbs) who read commercials over the setbreaks. The format, with no subterfuge whatsoever, is entertainment meant to sell: the products of the sponsors, the records of the artists, and the Opry itself.

 

Dolly Parton, in her interviews on the excellent podcast “Dolly Parton’s America” (which has been our “road-reading” on this segment of our trip; it’s from WNYC, hosted by Jad Abumrad and produced by Shima Oliaee) cites commercial demands often when talking about her songwriting. In listening to her interviews, you get more of that sense of tropes or packaging, writing “blue and lonesome” songs, or “stand by your man” songs, or, as meticulously discussed in one dedicated episode (guided expertly by historian Nadine Hubbs), the “don’t take my man” song. That episode focuses solely on Parton’s hit single “Jolene,” discussing the ways it flips the script on the “don’t take my man” trope. They contrast it to Loretta Lynn’s song “Fist City” (which, incidentally, is one of mine and my wife’s favorite country tunes), which is more in line with the trope―pretty much one woman telling another woman off in a dispute over a man. In “Jolene”, however, there isn’t so much antagonism but a “rhapsodic fixation” on her competitor. There is a wonderful discussion on the podcast of the pacing Dorian scale that Parton uses in the guitar lick, this ancient-feeling lyricism, sensuous descriptions of Jolene’s beauty, all of which leads them to ask whether the song might actually be homoerotic. It’s a great episode and I’d recommend it as a standalone, but the point I take here is that even in Parton’s subversion she’s still cleanly engaging the tropes, the various modes of tradition―it’s not radically new, per se, more upside down. Of course country music has evolved a lot over the decades, but I would still maintain that it’s been within these kinds of parameters, always paying some homage to the past that precedes it, asking the favor, as it were, of Nashville, a well-greased industry town that has worked a tried-and-true formula to slowly advance traditions for new audiences.

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Even in a dive bar in East Nashville, the icons reign.

To say that the music of Memphis is the opposite isn’t exactly right, but the motivations are palpably different. I read this David Cohn quote for the first time in a Memphis travel guide: “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel,” and the opening exhibit in the STAX Museum of American Soul Music is the restored Hooper’s AME Episcopal Church originally built in Duncan, Mississippi in 1906 by sharecroppers, former slaves, and others who lived in that area. Being in Memphis I immediately felt that sense of spiritual surrounding, of the Delta following the Mississippi river up to and overflowing Memphis, which has, like Nashville, done it’s own work to mix and package this regional culture. But the orientation to that culture and the overall sentiment of the two cities is pretty different. On our last night in town, we saw a wonderful show at a small bar in Cooper-Young (where we stayed), a fantastic two-piece surf-rock band, The Turnstyles. At one point the drummer apologized for the next song, “Cashville”―“it’s a small knock, really,” he said, “it’s just, they have the money, we have the soul.”

Drive from Graceland to the STAX museum, and you’ll go through some somewhat impoverished parts of Memphis. Even immediately around Graceland the contrast is jarring: this opulent home of an American icon, one of the main tourist destinations of Memphis, surrounded by bedraggled strip malls lining a roughshod road. That’s route 51, “Elvis Presley Blvd,” and to get to STAX you just drive north, going through working-class communities with rundown retail districts and light industrial businesses, discount furniture, auto salvage lots, small churches, some mom-and-pop restaurants. No bachelorette brunches or craft breweries here, though STAX is the anchor of a few revitalization efforts aimed mostly at a youth, a new charter school and music academy that seem to be doing great things for the community.

My feeling, this day we drove from Graceland to STAX (and then on to Sun Records) was: “real people.” That’s kind of a bullshit term, but it’s the one that stuck in my head as we spent time in some of the main neighborhoods where some of soul music’s most iconic songs (and artists) originated. Like country music, soul uses a traditional repertoire of styles and techniques. But there’s something about its expression that has always, to me, felt uniquely direct (and, of course, very emotional)―living out these traditions without the same sense of needing to pay homage to them, to master them, prove one’s credibility by them. STAX reminded me so much of the small independent press I’ve been working for. It’s commercial motivations were more about survival, about making the best art it could and letting it live as widely as possible without compromising its values or betraying the people (the artists, producers, and family members) for whom it was everything. In comparison to the “shine” of Motown, STAX’s gritty soul feels more exploratory, what you might in a high-fallutin’ way call indexical: trying to trust and capture the human spirit as its overcome by the endeavor of its artistry, expressing the struggles and dreams of its people not through configurations of tropes but in moments of musical intensity that might give way onto some kind of truth, and this sense of wanting to be together during those moments. I felt the echoes of this all around Memphis, in the blues jam we went to at Lafayettes and The Turnstyles goofy and but loving show, where covers of both the Zombies’ “Tell Her No” and Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis” hit me with equal warmth, this weirdly glad feeling to just be there at that moment with each other in all our individual ways.

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I stood here forever.

Driving out of the Osceola National Forest about a week ago, Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine” came on, randomly shuffled from the USB stick we keep in our car, and I cried uncontrollably. We had just been to STAX days before, and I watched the video at the Otis Redding exhibit twice. Otis Redding is probably mine and my wife’s top shared musical love. His story is heartwarming and tragic, and “These Arms of Mine,” was his first recording with STAX, done on a whim (much like Elvis’s “That’s Alright Mama”) mostly meant to freshen up a stale session. It’s incredibly simple, unequivocal, and completely overwhelming: “ These arms of mine, they are burning, burning from wanting you. These arms of mine, they are wanting, wanting to hold you, and if you would let them hold you, oh how grateful I will be.” The sentiment is so pure, the longing, and in Redding’s voice, it is fragile and ever so desperate, sung in that slightly dragging rhythm that evinces this cautious but assured attempt at expression, a care, as though the vocalist is looking down at the words and watching each almost parentally as it exits them. The song transcends romantic love. Or rather, it is about romantic love as a form of salvation, though plainspoken, supplication in the simple statement “how grateful I would be.” As the tall, thin pines flickered past us in that narrow avenue we drove through the Florida forest, I was overtaken not by my own desires, per se, but an admiration for the fullness of the human experience this expression of desire proved. I wanted myself to be that full, and I was afraid that I was not.

―January 26, Naples, FL

The start of our roadtrip

It’s January 11, 2020, and it’s been raining all morning here in East Nashville. Earlier, immense winds swept across the neighborhood, and from the window of our little apartment above an alley garage, I watched it mat and swirl this 15 foot stand of bamboo spraying up from the owner’s yard. The bamboo’s resistance gave the wind a three-dimensional feel, more of a solid chimerical entity than a broad force―more animal than weather. The thunder, too, has been 3-D, roiling in various distances on the full perimeter of our lofted space, making shapes or signs or signatures in my mind as I’ve lounged into the afternoon, staring out of the window and into the air that itself has the quality of mud, the bare winter hardwoods blurred scrawls ornamented here and there with the brilliant, rain-soaked, red-feathered cardinals that these past few days have been flitting at every periphery.

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With the sun at our backs in eastern Montana

This is the beginning of a year-long trip my wife and I are taking across America. Or anyway, it feels like the beginning, even though we’ve already been through ten states, driving from Seattle on I-90 across the Cascades, northern Rockies, and the high plateaus, plains, and rolling forests between the West Coast and Chicago, where we spent Christmas and New Year visiting friends and family. We’ve also stayed with folks in Minneapolis, Lafayette, Indiana, and Louisville, and have been in Nashville now for half a week or so. Last night we went to the Grand Ol’ Opry, which returns to its original home in the Ryman auditorium downtown every January and February. Being here in Nashville, it’s hard not to think a lot about country music, and I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve connected with the full set of its tenets―its commercialism and professional pop ethos, its rootedness, its poetry, its simplicity, the melodramatic ballads and jumping honkytonks, the taste of cheap beer in the lights and electricity of a good times band. And especially, its nostalgia, which it has cultivated ever since its birth, this feeling that what you want is always just beneath your feet, if you could just figure out how to bend down and touch it.

I have to be as honest as I can: nostalgia has been a dangerous force in America; it’s been violent, racist, and xenophobic, and it has been strategically deployed to garner power for the powerful. I feel it is a major element of what strangles us now, in the form of nationalism, in the fear of others and of porous boundaries, in our inability to conceive of a harmoniously global community. It is a version of uncanny unease, the unheimlich, never totally feeling at-home, or feeling that home has been taken from you (or soon will be). It’s something, with this trip and with this writing (whatever shape it ends up taking), that I am trying to look directly into, for myself, as it might exist in myself, how it shapes my desires and imagination, my frustrations, my depression. Now I am in no way a conservative, and I do not dream of a bygone era in this country, so when I connect whatever nostalgia lurks in me with the nostalgia I associate with conservative America, I mean to do it as an exercise, the most earnest exercise I can employ, to root out my own concept of rootedness at the very time I’ve embraced full mobility, and of course, to try to understand the America I am setting out with my partner to see.

So maybe thinking about a song like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (at the Opry last night, they did the Carter/Cash version, making a bit of a comedy routine, stopping the song at “daddy sang bass, mama sang tenor” to pit the registers against each other, to see who could go further into their respective range, who could go lower, or higher, each striving for an ever more distant octave) is a useful starting place to think about America now, and for us, our trip, and what we are seeking to understand. People have been asking us if we are looking for a new home, if we are trying to figure out where we want to land. In a way, we’ve wanted to say yes, but we’ve been hesitant to; it’s not that it’s the wrong question, per se, but more like it isn’t formulated correctly, like it’s in a language we don’t yet know how to speak. I’ve always had a slight cynicism about “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which is, of course, one of the most important songs in country music history (and a song I have, despite this cynicism, deeply loved). It’s always struck me as ambiguous, as a question, maybe even an interrogation. Is the circle a perimeter or a unity? Is it a form of protection, or one of connection? Is it the gated kingdom for the chosen, or the path by which we are all returned to each other? By and by, lord, by and by, we chorus―there’s a better home a waitin’. Is there?

~

Here is our plan so far. We are a week in Nashville and then a few days in Memphis. Then we go to visit with my wife’s parents in Naples, Florida, where we will also do a roughly five-day paddle of the Everglades. After Florida we will travel west to New Orleans, where will stay for all of February (that’s all of Carnival and Mardi Gras), enjoying visits from numerous groups of friends. In March, we head farther West, with vague plans to stay in Austin and Houston, firmer plans to backpack in Big Bend National Park, and definite plans (i.e. we already have permits) to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim. In April, we rest again, this time in Los Angeles, for another month. May first is our ten-year wedding anniversary, and we will spend it in Big Sur. Then north to the Bay Area to visit friends, then back south to Sequoia, than east across the crest and into the desert, Las Vegas, then hopefully picking up a friend to backpack Chesler Park in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, eventually making our way to Colorado by Memorial Day when we hope to see more friends and stay the early season in the mountains. We have tickets for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in mid-June and plan to do many hikes and backpacks as summer settles in, flying back to Louisville for a family reunion over the Fourth of July. Then back to the Rockies, where, if snowpack allows, we will do a late-July traverse of the Wind River High Route, before heading, likely, to Oregon to celebrate my wife’s fortieth birthday. Then, mid-August, we fly to Alaska, where I hope to complete a three-week trip hiking from Wonder Lake to the park entrance of Denali National Park, my wife and perhaps some friends joining me at various points (my wife will also explore other parts of Alaska). After that, things get especially vague, but our general hope is to make it to the East Coast for the fall, to visit with numerous people there.

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Aswirl in the honkytonk

We think it’s a good itinerary, more shored up, naturally, in its earlier parts, with various nodes cast out into the calendar to help anchor our plans and give us a general sense of direction. We’ve been telling people we are hiking and dancing all year, and I’ve enjoyed the celebratory nature of that description. It is a big celebration, but I hope it will also be disciplining, that it will show us better what we need and don’t, how to be with people and alone, how to listen, talk, move, solve problems, and leave no trace. We are doing it all in our car―not a camper or van―and I’ve been joking that we are going ultralight, and that is indeed an earnest set of values I want to cultivate on the trip. We have it all meticulously budgeted. We will try to cook the best food we can for ourselves, eat only in restaurants we really want to eat in, be outside as much as possible, interact with as many people as are willing, exercise, read, take photos, notes, make lists, play games, and constantly check in with each other. Or anyway that’s the idea.

It’s a strange and challenging time for a lot of people. I hear it in their voices, and of course I see it prominently in every form of media, from raging social media posts to the endless furies of cable news to the weird social fantasies of popular shows, the post-apocalypses and other visions of different societies. This year is going to be hard for America, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that we are trying to escape it a little bit. But I also hope we will get beneath it. One of the words that constantly comes up in my mind is “estrangement,” and I think that’s what we are trying to overcome, to connect with real people and real land, and to foster the good.

Right now, my wife is sweeping the floor of our loft while talking to her sister on the phone; a dal is simmering on the stove (our plan is to dehydrate it for the Everglades), and the smell is starting to fill the room. Outside, the rain has stopped and the air is glowing more warmly in the emerging light. The mud seems to have flattened, lying low now in the yards and alleyway, glistening slightly. This is as good a threshold as any; will the circle be unbroken.

―January 11, Nashville, TN